Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper
Directed by: Saul Dibb (“Bullet Boy”)
Written by: Saul Dibb (“Bullet Boy”), Jeffrey Hatcher (“Casanova”), Anders Thomas Jensen (“After the Wedding”)
Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve seen this period piece before and not just because of the exquisite costumes and ballroom dances. It might be hard to differentiate between period pieces these days, but with “The Duchess” there is enough enthusiasm from Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes to make it worth another trip back in time to the 18th century.
Set in 1774 England, Georgina (Knightley) has just been called upon by the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes) to become his new bride. Unlike Knightley’s reaction as Elizabeth Bennett in the most recent “Pride and Prejudice” remake, Georgina is thrilled with the idea of being matched to someone she has never met to secure her and her family’s well-being. Early scenes show Georgina flirting with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a young man who is the token love interest most period pieces will flock back to when their leading lady is fed up with her exalted husband. It happens again here in “Duchess,” (as do a few other plot points in films like “The Other Boleyn Girl”) but not before some interesting forks in the seemingly straightforward road.
Failing to give birth to a male heir, the Duchess, who ignores her husband’s extramarital affairs, gives her trust and friendship to a woman she meets at a party named Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell). Georgina even gets the Duke to allow her to move into the estate when Elizabeth falls on hard times. It doesn’t take long for their new tenant to use her friendship with Georgina to begin a relationship with the Duke. The bizarre love triangle is taken up a notch when, instead of ridding himself of Georgina, the Duke decides that he wants to live with both women and continue their lives as he sees fit. The tension is at its highest during scenes when all three are at the breakfast table masking their displeasure and anger.
Of course, Georgina finds her way back to the now-political Charles Grey, who has never forgot about her. They’re relationship gets melodramatic and predictable, but roles like this are so second nature for Knightley, she does them in such a fascinating way it’s hard to imagine anyone else (even her lookalike Natalie Portman) playing the same part.
Where “The Duchess” fails is not building on Georgina’s character outside the walls of her castle. Although the scenes are few and far between, the Duchess was known for her taste in fashion, and political interest, but there’s really no mention of them despite Knightley’s take on her outgoing personality when she is away from the confines of her own home. We may not really see how Georgina affects the people of Devonshire on a cultural level, but as an emotionally wrecked figure Knightley captures her essence wonderfully.