The Duchess (DVD)

SYNOPSIS: Set at the end of the 18th century, The Duchess is the story of the beautiful and glamorous Georgiana Spencer (Knightley), the most fascinating woman of the age. While her beauty and charisma made her name, her extravagant tastes and appetite for gambling and love made her infamous. Married young to the older, distant Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes), intimate of ministers and princes, Georgiana became a fashion icon, a doting mother, a shrewd political operator and darling of the common people. But at the core of her story is a desperate search for love. From Georgiana’s passionate and doomed affair with Earl Grey (Cooper) to the complex ménage à trois with her husband and her best friend, Lady Bess Foster (Atwell), The Duchess is a contemporary tale of fame, notoriety and the search for love.

The Duchess DVD

"Yet another period piece starring Keira Knightley!" I hear you whine. Well, stop your whining. Yes, her last three films have been period pieces (the preceeding two were The Edge of Love and Atonement). But you know what? All three films have been superb. So what is there to compain about?

I'll never understand why so many people dislike Keira Knightley. I think it's petty jealousy — she's pretty, slim and famous, so women (mainly) seem to have it in for her. She debuted to some acclaim in Bend it Like Beckham, yet she gained international fame with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which many film snobs consider a sellout. (She's also been in the odd stinker here and there, Domino probably being the biggest.) I agree that she's not the world's best actress. But in each of those films I mention above, her skills have noticably improved. To my mind, The Duchess is her best performance to date. It's a difficult role — Georgiana is the centre of the film, and as such is in almost every scene. Yet she carries it off with applomb, bringing a mix of nobility and vulnerability to the screen. You can sympathise with her plight, yet respect the grace with which she deals with the situation.

Of course, as good as Knightley is, Fiennes is just so much better. If he is not at least nominated for an Oscar for this performance, then the Academy members wouldn't know good acting if it bit them on their fat, stupid arses. As the stuffy Duke of Devonshire, he's simply mesmerising. The Duke is a horrid, nasty, cold-hearted character — a man who thinks nothing of cheating on his wife, yet threatens to take her children away from her when she has an affair. Yet Fiennes puts in such a measured, perfect performance that you can empathise and almost feel sorry for the Duke — a man trapped by the dictates and structures of the society in which he lives. The rest of the cast bring their A-game to the table as well, particularly Atwell as the Duke's love interest, the "third person in the marriage". But what lets the film down slightly is the all-important relationship between Georgiana and her lover, the charismatic Charles Grey. Cooper is perfectly fine in the role, but there just doesn't seem to be enough chemistry between him and Knightley. A minor quibble. Visually, too, the film is sumptuous — full of fancy, flouncy costumes and gorgeous country manors, it's a delight for the eyes.

The marketing of this film has made much of the fact that Georgiana was an ancestor of Princess Diana's, and their lives paralleled in many ways. Georgiana was a celebrity of her time, and like Diana, she led what appeared to be a joyful life in public while having quite a miserable existence behind closed doors. There are also the parallels with the relationship between Charles and Camilla. Yes, all that comes across, but what makes a bigger impact, for me at least, is how much society has changed its attitudes towards women. Back in her day, Georgiana's job, as a wife, was to simply supply her husband with an heir. That's all he wants, and bugger her needs or desires. I finished watching the film somewhat ashamed to be male, and glad that I live in the time that I do.

EXTRAS **½ Just a making-of featurette, three deleted scenes, a photo gallery and some trailers.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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