Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell, in 'The Duchess'

Dir. Saul Dibb
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★

The Duchess features lavish costumes by Michael O’Connor, extravagant production design by Michael Carlin, and a handsome score by Rachel Portman. The screenplay — by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, and director Saul Dibb — is less ambitious. It presents British history with a dash of romance-novel feminism in the same vein as The Other Boleyn Girl. In this case, it’s the story of Georgiana (Keira Knightley), the Duchess of Devonshire, who is trapped in a loveless marriage and decides, “If my husband can take a lover, why can’t I?”

Her husband, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), is appropriately loathsome. He rapes Georgiana, beds her best friend, shows her no affection, and disapproves of any child she bears that isn’t a male heir. There are shadings of shy insecurity in Fiennes’s performance that at all times threaten to add dimension to the underwritten role, but he sticks mostly to his prescribed role as villain. Her lover, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), is appropriately virile. He also does what his role demands: flirts with his bedroom eyes, demonstrates sensitivity in Georgiana’s time of need, bounds into her mansion in a grand romantic gesture to sweep her away. The film opens with a physical contest to prove his manliness; no word on whether the comparison to a horse is apt.

I kid, I kid. True, the film favors its less interesting subject: under the romance is a fascinating study of Georgiana as a proto-celebrity that should be the focus rather than the background; with her extravagant fashion and popularity to the tabloids, she is the Paris Hilton of her day. But Knightley and director Dibb achieve a dignity that elevates the material above crass melodrama. As I write it, this review seems more derisive than I intended it to be. So be it. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly a sucker for this kind of film, but it worked for me. I liked The Other Boleyn Girl too.

Advertisements