THE DUCHESS is a middling film about a larger-than-life historical character from the 18th century. That would be Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), fashion icon, darling of the public and of the media, she was beautiful, rich, used her position and fame to influence politics, and married to a man who was indifferent to her and openly kept a mistress. Similarities to a modern day royal are not unintentional, particularly since both women grew up at the same estate, Althorp, where the opening scenes are set, and before marriage they both bore the surname of Spencer. Alas, the intentions fall short. Then again, so does almost everything else.
There is little time wasted setting Georgiana up for heartbreak. While she is outside on the lawn at Althorp, her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is putting the finishing touches on the marriage arrangements between her daughter and William, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Georgiana finds out about when she is called inside and her mother announces it to her. G, as her husband will call her, assumes that he is in love with her though they have only met twice. He assumes that she will bear him an heir and otherwise not trouble him much. They are both going to be disappointed.
She is cultured, witty, and charming, beguiling Charles Fox (Simon McBurney), the leader of the Whig party with an impromptu dissertation on the philosophy of freedom, which becomes subtext for the story. He is a dullard who officially supports the Whigs, but prefers his dogs, who leaves his own dinner party when the political speeches run too long, as in they occur at all. Romantic, he is not. Companionable, he is not. When she complains to her mother that he never talks to her, her mother’s sensible reply is to inquire what it is he would have to say to her, or her to him. The inevitable complications ensue. The mistress he takes lives under the same roof as his wife. She fights and then succumbs to the attentions of a Whig party hopeful, who was also her childhood crush, the darkly handsome Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, who should be fiery and smoldering, but isn’t).
Where the film strives to be an examination of repressed passion and the restraints imposed by wealth, class, gender, and politics, it instead plays as an oddly bloodless and insipid exercise in deliberate pacing and exuberant attention to historical detail. Georgiana’s hair is high, her skirts are wide and the other trappings are authentic right to the skin to judge by the marks left by the corset on Knightley’s back just after it is removed. The homes, authentic locations as often as not, are grand and imposing. On the other hand, the script, based on the book by Amanda Foreman, like the performances, are competent, but fail to ignite any great emotional response from the audience. Though Georgiana’s hair does literally ignite at one point, providing the most vivid image in the entire two hours. It is a shame that the passionate embraces of forbidden love between Georgiana and Charles fail to generate the same heat.
Knightley looks lovely, but fails to tap the deep well of seething emotions required to carry the role and the film. She is a porcelain doll who has no trouble looking tragic with her large doe eyes, or summoning up a girlish giddiness when necessary, but the sparkle and the wit that dazzled society aren’t there, even when she repeats Georgiana’s words verbatim. For all the effort she is so evidently expending, she can’t quite overcome the impression that she is a little girl playing dress-up. Fiennes, while not a sympathetic character, similarly gives little for the audience to work with. With a canny forcefulness, he makes the Duke a man indifferent entirely to the needs of others, but one without any rancor towards them either, except when it comes to not getting a male heir. This, in the larger scope of the film, fails to render the Duke an object of active disdain. He is willful, petulant, but beyond one coldly calculated act of violence, ultimately someone who is as bland and colorless as person lacking any sort of inner life would be. There is simply nothing to react to on an emotional level. Interesting choice and performed without fault, but it leaves Knightley, and the audience, with very little to play against.
THE DUCHESS is a plaster cast of a movie. All the form of a cinematic event with none of the color, it turns a life that was fascinating into a film that is merely interesting.