It says something about a film when the most compelling character is the villain; and even he’s not that interesting. The latest luscious period piece to try for the high-end bodice-ripper market, The Duchess makes a honorable stab at convincing audiences that the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgina Spencer, was a woman ahead of her time, a sparkling wit, and an icon to the people of England. While the historical record seems to prove that she was indeed all of those things, Saul Dibb’s over-glossed film treatment turns her story into another tale of a woman pressured into an unhappy marriage at an early age who then suffers, with little but an exquisite wardrobe and an estate the size of Denmark to soothe her.
The film begins in luxurious royal splendor, with a rosebud-young Georgina (Keira Knightley in full cheeky bloom) gamboling on the lawn with friends and some cute aristocratic boys in wigs and leggings, while her mother the Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) watches, witch-like, from a window and plots an arranged marriage to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Although Georgina is currently crushing on the dashing Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), when informed of her impending betrothal, she is giddy with delight. While Georgina is supposed to have been a pretty bright bulb, it’s hard not to judge her for failing to be suspicious of any plan cooked up in a darkened room by the likes of Rampling and Fiennes, neither of whom should ever be taken at face value.
In due course, Georgina is married to the Duke and discovers that not only is he a cold fish, but his lack of interest in anything about her besides her ability to produce a male heir is downright creepy. Complaints about his lack of tenderness and humanity are related in due course to the Lady Spencer, who in essence tells her to lie back and think of England, providing cold comfort in the hope that once she sires a boy the Duke will lose interest.
That the Duke barely speaks to anybody but his dogs, degrades her for giving birth to only girls, and also entertains other women in his bedchamber but tells Georgina this is of no concern to her, turns her life into something worse than a bad marriage. By the time the Duke has brazenly seduced/blackmailed Georgina’s best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), provoking Georgina to spark up an affair with budding politician Grey, the whole affair would be like something out of a bad novel, were it not for the most part true.
Spencer is commonly referred to as the Princess Diana of her day, and in fact Diana would be her great-great-great-grandniece. There are some interesting parallels between the two women’s lives, particularly in their unfulfilling marriages, love of fashion, and high popularity among the commoners. Where the parallels end, though, was in Georgina’s determined involvement in the political rows of her day and her unflinching engagement in the bawdy men’s world of drinking and gambling.
Dibb’s film is perfectly willing to engage in the Diana-like aspects of Georgina’s life (except for her celebrity, which is strangely only glancingly referred to), but less so in those aspects that marked Georgina as a woman ahead of her time. So does a film that could have been a bold feminist statement become fodder for those who just loved The Other Boleyn Girl.
The world of The Duchess should have been one of fiery tumult, set as it is during the revolutionary upheavals of the 1780s and ‘90s, but little of that foment makes it into this film’s garden party landscape. One could absolve it from such responsibility were it a mere period royalty romance. But when the script makes such a point of Georgina’s wit that it has her trading quips with the likes of playwright Richard Sheridan—whose School for Scandal was supposedly inspired by the Spencers’ rather open ménage a trios, and which we see performed in the film—to then so pointedly ignore her (by all accounts) deep involvement in the politics of the time is inexcusable.
What we are left with instead is the portrait of a pretty and sad young woman with remarkable pluck who tried to make the best of a bad situation and was condemned for it.
This would have been less of a problem had the filmmakers made any serious effort to flesh out their characters, instead of fussing with the (admittedly gorgeous) costumes. Knightley is, as ever, cute as a button here, but also quite engaging, turning in a better than necessary performance when all she is really being called upon to do is look pretty while trying to hold back tears. Next to Knightley, Atwell barely registers when she should be tearing up the screen as the fulcrum of the Spencers’ terminally unhappy relationship, coming off just as flat here as she did in last year’s lamentable Cassandra’s Dream.
Against this backdrop, Fiennes stands out like a flare on a dark highway. For all its mistakes, the script at least pays lip service to presenting its characters as flawed humans instead of caricatures, and Fiennes benefits the most from this. Although on paper the Duke is something lower than detestable, as filtered through Fiennes’ tight-lipped performance, he seems a more fully developed person than just about anybody else on screen.
When Georgina lambastes the Duke for not treating her with a shred of decency, there’s a flicker in Fiennes’ eyes that reads more quizzical than remorseful; he just doesn’t understand what this woman is talking about. Unfortunately for the audience, by the time the credits roll, neither do we.