The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, desperately wants to be an historic bio-pic that fetes the life of a “modern” woman, repressed by 18th century English culture. “Based on true events,” the real life Duchess was apparently a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures (thank-you Wikipedia).
The film, The Duchess, by way of one or two scenes tries to suggest this great social character. It starts with Keira Knightley as the 17-year old virginal girl, married off to The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling). His sole goal in marrying her is to breed a son. She naively thinks that her marriage might be one that builds a relationship.
The movie then skips 6 years and low and behold The Duchess has become this socialite who “expresses herself through her dresses.” The development of this outspoken and charismatic woman might have been interesting. Instead the film fails to build any tension of its own. It relies on us identifying with the moral conundrum faced by the women by their miserable husbands : pursue happiness on their own terms or lose access to their children.
The unsympathetic, emotionally-handicapped Duke is well portrayed by Fiennes. It is said that “he is the only man in England who is not in love with his wife” as he chases other young women to be his bed companions. His relations with his wife extends only as long as it takes to sire a son. His conversation is virtually nil, his interest in his wife minimal and then utters the most redundant line in the film, “I’m not particularly adept at expressing myself when it comes to matters of a more personal nature.” Thanks Duke - I think we worked that out. The film failed to tell a cohesive story and this is but one small instance.
The film won Best Oscar for Costume Design and it is perhaps best to enjoy it from this perspective. There’s nothing like a romping period drama with a large budget to go all out with. The backdrop of spacious manor houses and luxuriant living allows Knightley to act with poise and grace as she models these voluminous, multi-layered dresses made of the finest silk, taffeta and satin. Her wigs are the most stupendous creations, with feathers or flowers to accent them impressively. Alternatively a hat and parasol extols her virtue when venturing outside. Her makeup is impeccable : the slightest rouge to highlight her cheekbones, and either a “natural” red for lips that must pucker, or auburn for a subdued expression. Knightley is the perfect model for the artists behind the scenes and the film is a worthy winner.
2 out of 5.