The Duchess Review
With the tagline, 'There were three people in her marriage,' one might expect The Duchess to draw heavy-handed parallels with a more recent upper crust love triangle scenario, but in fact it holds its own as a slice of late eighteenth century life, feeling authentically in period and not, in the manner of so many historical dramas, like contemporary life in fancy dress.
When nineteen-year-old Georgiana (Keira Knightley) marries the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), she expects to lead a life of charmed privilege, but what she gets is very different. The Duke, an emotionally-shallow philanderer, sees marriage strictly as a means to an end - the provision of a male heir - and the blame for any failures on this front, such as still births or the production of girls, is laid firmly and squarely on Georgiana's shoulders. She remonstrates with her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), about the burdensomeness of sex and the fact that the Duke doesn't even make conversation with her; and her mother can only smile and say, 'What is there to talk about?' In short Georgiana is trapped: a bird in a gilded cage.
There is, however, an upside. Now moving in the highest circles, Georgiana becomes a darling of society, trading witty reposts with politicians such as Charles James Fox (Simon McBurney) and Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), and the playwright Sheridan (Aidan McArdle). She likes to party, drink too much and gamble, and she gets written about in the newspapers. For a time life is tolerable, but when Georgiana's best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), comes to stay, Georgiana again experiences the machinery of aristocratic control grinding against her in cruel ways.
Based on the Amanda Foreman biography, The Duchess is not quite the story of Charles, Diana and Camilla projected back two centuries, though the emotions, and the absence of them, do have a similar ring. Like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, the film works by showing the young woman's viewpoint of a society whose high fashion opulence is only matched by its stultifying rigidity. Director Saul Dibb's careful observation and measured pace are just right, giving us the space to absorb the impact of Georgiana's vicissitudes. And Keira Knightley, the girl who 'can't act', is also very good here, building on her period work with Joe Wright to give a deep and moving central performance.
In this Knightley is helped greatly by Ralph Fiennes, and as a pair they make a perfect dysfunctional couple, from the bad sex to the bad everything else. Fiennes' Duke is completely believable and three dimensional, not a sadistic monster but a man of enormous power who doesn't have to make an effort or a show to get what he wants, but simply has to take it, offering little by way of explanation or consideration for the effects of his wants on others. In one scene, Georgiana attempts to make a deal about matters in their private life, and the Duke hurls the word back at her with a condescending question mark. He then goes on to demonstrate just how a man like him doesn't need to bargain. So the feisty Georgiana has to fight for what brief oases of happiness she can find, and along the way there are some gut-wrenching moments when plans go awry.
As one would expect, the period atmosphere is beautifully realised, with Bath's Palladian architecture playing its part, and like Marie Antoinette it's a costume design paradise of billowing skirts, three-cornered hats, chintz and brocade, corsets, knee breeches and wigs so big and high that they become a fire hazard. But underneath its pretty surface, The Duchess is a drama with real bite, which feels true to life, where uneasy compromise more often takes precedence over neatly-tied resolution.