There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.
Though she longs to be with her sexy school chum Earl Grey, Lady Georgiana Spencer is promised to the dour William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, by her scheming mother. As a marriage of convenience and financial windfall, both households triumph. The Duke gets a Duchess to bear him an heir, while the Spencers align themselves with noble lineage. Almost immediately, Georgiana learns her frustrating fate. The Duke is a desperate lover, a horrible conversationalist, and a wanton womanizer. After befriending the fallen Lady Foster, our heroine soon discovers her taking up with her husband. Pursuing Grey, Georgiana becomes an outrage. But her popularity, founded on a love of gambling, fashion, and politics, keeps her favor with the masses. Even as she enters into an uncomfortable ménage a trios with Foster and her spouse, she finds ways to pursue her more ‘private’ passions.
Maybe it’s the casting of Keira Knightley. It could be the compromise of having TV director Saul Dibb behind the lens (apparently, he wasn’t the first choice). Maybe it’s the mediocre allusion to modern times. Clearly, we are supposed to see this Spencer as a pre-dated carbon copy of a certain Candle in the Wind - aka Princess Di. Whatever the rationale, however, The Duchess can’t help but be a massive bore. While others are keening for Oscar noms all around, audiences can expect another helping of half-baked Harlequin romancing draped in the kind of unbelievable beauty of an era unnaturally ornate. Few films reflecting the period play realistically with the obvious issues of disease and hygiene, and it’s a fair cop to argue that viewers don’t want such authenticity. But by prettying up everything, the production removes whatever teeth the tale had to offer.
Knightley is also a problem here, putting on the pout she perfected while playing pirate for the last few years. Unlike Atonement which allowed her a much larger emotional range, The Duchess demands she be happy or sad, nothing more. Even in sequences where the dimensional arc should be much broader, Knightley offers little nuance. Things aren’t much better for costar Ralph Fiennes. As the dour, glum Duke of Devonshire, his character is more constipated than anything else. We are supposed to see the sadness behind the manor-born, to understand that he is simply playing by prescribed rules laid down after centuries of wealth and ritual. But Fiennes fails to find any spark. He’s so subtle as to be almost inert.
It is Dibb, however, who draws most of our ire. While the locations chosen have all the necessary pomp and circumstance, the spectacle seems to be missing. Crowd scenes feel claustrophobic, while lush interiors are underlit and frequently misused. You can hear the filmmaker defending himself: “this is a film about people, not places.” But part of the allure with such subject matter is the wish fulfillment fantasy of revisiting the days of the decadent, the dandy, and the unctuous uppercrust. For a film founding its narrative on such a supposedly scandalous lady, The Duchess is cloying and conservative. Even the sex scenes, and there are a couple, keep things direct and decent.
Dibb also demonstrates little insight into human nature. Again, it could be the timeframe being referenced, but dramatic license does allow for a few post-modern moments of clarity. When Georgiana confronts William and Lady Foster over their affair, the scene should sizzle. Instead, it’s rendered routine and matter of fact. However, when the Duke gets to gloat over his knowledge of his wife’s trysts with Grey, it’s handled in a much more bombastic manner. One could argue that Dibb is simply staying within the paternalistic power base of the epoch, giving Fiennes the freedom Knightley would never have. But again, this is fiction, not a fully factual recreation. Give your actors some room to breath, or suffer the stifled, uneven consequences.
Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined. Aside from the lack of a clear contemporary context (the Diana element isn’t even mentioned), one gets the impression that all this plays better on the page, where imagination and inner vision can compensate for the limits of the players onscreen. Someone once said that the further you go back into the past, the more similar to science fiction your effort becomes. That’s because the relationship to the modern world is so alien and arcane. The Duchess wants to draw parallels to the present by suggesting that people in the past were just the same as you or I. And maybe it’s true. After all, the conclusion being delivered here is that, no matter the century, affairs of the heart are often quite boring.