Duke dishes out nastiness with doses of humility

In less capable hands, William Cavendish, the duke of Devonshire, could have easily come across as a two-dimensional villain.

After all, in “The Duchess” he’s a man who, on the page, not only prefers the company of his dogs to that of his young wife Georgiana (Keira Knightley) but carries on a long-running affair with his bride’s best friend. At one point, the character — frustrated with Georgiana’s perceived failure to produce a male heir — even resorts to rape.

But Ralph Fiennes manages to unearth the duke’s humanity, revealing him to be a man both driven and trapped by an inescapable sense of duty. Beneath the cool exterior, the actor makes us believe, there is a tormented inner life, even if the repressed British aristocrat is incapable of ever verbalizing it.

“Ralph found a way under the skin of this guy,” says Saul Dibb, the film’s director and co-writer. “He understood that there was a person there, somebody who had his own fears and own very clear sense of morality. He made a performance out of things that weren’t written — out of pauses, grunts and asides.”

By now, Fiennes is an expert at playing tortured and aloof souls. Look no further than his Oscar-nominated performance in 1997’s best picture winner, “The English Patient.”

Even so, he was fastidious in his approach to “The Duchess,” plastering his trailer walls with 18th-century art and listening to music from the time period between scenes. He also consulted with Georgiana biographer Amanda Foreman, on whose book the film is based, to peel away the duke’s emotional layers, and worked closely with costumer Michael O’Connor to perfect his fashionable exterior.

“Ralph spent a lot of time going through every single costume, from how long the waistcoats would be to the kind of buttons and embroidery used,” Dibb reports. “I think he felt he needed to be as particular in his choices about the duke as the duke was in his own life.”

The resulting performance could net Fiennes, who also stars in this year’s “The Reader,” his first Oscar nod in more than a decade.

“I think Ralph found things to like and love in the duke,” Dibb sums up. “When an actor’s able to do that, and they’re able to convey all of those things, you’re not going to get a straightforward performance. You get what Ralph gave us — something quite special.”

Coming attractions

Fiennes stars in “The Gifted,” from writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes (“Mean Creek”). Pic details the true story of Zell Kravinsky, who made $45 million in real estate and gave most of it away to charity.

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