The Duchess

the duchess Keira Knightley

I had read many reviews of this film, some rather good, some rather bad, so I went to see this film with an open mind. That was two weeks ago, upon its release in France. Now I realize I shouldn’t tarry anymore in writing my review because this is not the kind of movie that will leave a very durable impression.

Not that it is bad, far from it. It has everything one expects from a period piece: the lavish costumes, the beautiful English country estates, the carriages, the obligatory shots of Bath. It is not visually stunning, but it looks good.

The cast is uneven. Ralph Fiennes (the Duke of Devonshire) again proves himself one of the most accomplished actors around these days. He makes the difficult character of the Duke more human, more interesting , more sympathetic than anyone else in the film.

Keira Knightley (the Duchess) doesn’t quite perform at the same level. She has developed the annoying trick of using her jaw, the most prominent feature in her face, to signal her character’s emotions. Jaw jutting forward means that we are dealing with one tough cookie. Jaw moving side to side indicates that some sharp repartee is coming our way. But this is not enough. She may cry, yell, whimper, but the emotion is missing.

As for Charlotte Rampling (Lady Spencer, the heroine’s mother) she is obviously here in the same capacity as Kristin Scott Thomas in The Other Boleyn Girl: she provides the prestigious older actress’s seal of approval.

What about historical accuracy? The movie purports to be based on Amanda Foreman’s acclaimed biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, but only a few trivia (those, I suppose, deemed the most titillating to a modern audience) remain.

The Duchess Keira KnightleyThis Georgiana, unlike the real one, doesn’t worry her pretty little head with literary endeavors. Georgiana’s novel, The Sylph, or her poetry are not mentioned at all. Her passionate involvement in politics gets no more than a nodding acknowledgment. There are only discrete allusions to what was the plague of Georgiana’s life: her ruinous gambling addiction.

What the film chooses to emphasize instead is the ménage à trois between the Duke, the Duchess and their common friend Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster (Hayley Atwell, quite good.) Here Georgiana is presented as outraged by the situation and resentful of it, probably to suit modern morality tastes, but in fact she was emotionally dependent on Bess, and a willing party to this arrangement.

The film makes motherhood the central issue in the lives of both Bess and Georgiana. It is certain that the latter was a loving parent, and that having to give up her adulterous child was heartbreaking to her, but I am far less persuaded in the case of Bess.

The Duchess Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley is too emaciated to credibly play an 18th century beauty, and Ralph Fiennes too old to play the Duke (who was 26 at the time of his marriage to Georgiana.) But this would be nothing if the screenplay were compelling. It is frustrating to watch Georgiana, a complex, intellectual, passionate, flawed character, thus turned into soap opera fodder.

It doesn’t help that the director seems to lack any sense of ridicule. It is difficult enough to imagine the phlegmatic Duke raping his wife, but here he does it without even losing his wig (for a moment I was reminded of the scene in the film Excalibur where a knight successfully copulates in full armor.) When Lady Spencer calls on her daughter after Georgiana has just given birth to her first child, the new mother is perfectly coiffed and dressed. For the record, the real Lady Spencer, far from being content with such cursory visits, would set up camp in her daughter’s bedroom for weeks on end upon the occasion of every laying-in.

So would I recommend this film? Yes, certainly, as light entertainment. But as a retelling of the life of the real Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it fails. I am not sure it ever tried. A pity.

The Duchess Keira Knightley

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