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.
"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 walked out of the screening somewhat ashamed to be male, and glad that I live in the time that I do.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey **** It is interesting to consider the parallels between Georgiana, the subject of The Duchess, and her distant relative Princess Diana. Both were celebrated fashion leaders, both were enormously popular, both were trapped in loveless marriages for the sake of the children. Happily, Georgiana's life didn’t end with a carriage crash in a Paris tunnel pursued by loads of sketch artists on ponies but that would only be slightly more tacky than the current tagline of: "There were three people in her marriage." Really? Who’s that a dig at then?
It’s a shame that the marketing has focused on that because this delightful, insightful and very moving film deserves much more respect. As mentioned above it's Keira's best film to date, which is now praise indeed after The Edge of Love. However, the key to the film’s power is undoubtedly Ralph Fiennes' quiet, breathtaking performance. After Daniel Day Lewis's yelling, whispering and ludicrous hamming in There Will Be Shouting, it’s refreshing to see a man use the subtleties of his craft to make his mark. The Duke is an utter bastard – cold, callous, serially unfaithful and, on this evidence, a rapist – and could have been a pantomime villain. Fiennes makes him human and, in one key moment, with a rueful smile, a flash of the eyes and an unexpected tender touch, he makes you understand the pressures the Duke was under. Indeed, he does it so well, you’re overcome with sympathy for a character who 12 seconds before you’d have happily stoned to death. Now that, Academy and Mr Day-Lewis, is acting.
Dibb’s direction is spot on, there’s surprising levels of humour woven through the film, and the tale is fascinating. Atwell lends excellent support (as, it must be said, does her bodice) and Cooper is also on fine form – although, as mentioned above, there is a lack of chemistry between the supposed star-crossed lovers. Actually, that’s possibly being harsh. Their bond would be satisfactory for most films of this ilk. The problem with The Duchess is that everything else is so near perfection, any flaw becomes that much more obvious. Even so, that "problem" aside, this is one of the best British films of the decade – and probably longer.