Plumed feathers, powdered wigs and corseted libidos abound in “The Duchess,” but for all its luscious period trappings and Keira Knightley’s spirited take on the title role, Saul Dibb’s handsome biopic reveals little about how Georgiana Spencer Cavendish became one of 18th-century London’s most celebrated and influential aristocrats. Reducing a complex portrait to a prototypical tale of passion suppressed by loveless matrimony and the sexist nature of the times, this upscale but undistinguished romantic drama should primarily court femme arthouse auds when it opens Sept. 5 in Blighty. After its Toronto gala, Paramount Vantage unveils the film Sept. 19 Stateside.
Pic’s marketing campaign has made much of the fact that its subject was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. As painstakingly detailed in “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire,” Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography (adapted here by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Dibb), Georgiana was a fashion trendsetter, gossip-column fixture and unhappy wife. And at a time when the American Revolution precipitated radical changes in British society, she was also a prominent player in the conservative, pro-U.S. Whig Party, eclipsing her husband in clout and popularity.
But “The Duchess” sweeps its politics neatly under the rug (a nicely embroidered rug, to be sure), assuming audiences will care more for affairs of the heart than for affairs of state. It’s a serviceable picture that offers all the sumptuous visual pleasures of a historical costume drama, yet little in the way of actual history.
It’s 1774 when vivacious 16-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Knightley), at the savvy arrangement of her mother (Charlotte Rampling), weds William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, excellent). Installed at his London manse, Georgiana finds the duke a cold, inattentive husband who expects her to overlook his many affairs — even when the product of one, Charlotte, comes to live with them — and produce a male heir.
Six years later, Georgiana has borne two daughters (but, as the duke reminds her often, no son) and become the city’s reigning socialite, with a severe weakness for drinking and gambling (downplayed in the film). She develops an intimate friendship with Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster (Hayley Atwell, her delicate features masking a certain ruthlessness), who has been cast out by her brutish husband. But Georgiana’s devotion backfires when Bess becomes the duke’s latest conquest and a permanent resident of the household.
In the ensuing battle of wills with her husband, which includes a scene of marital rape, Georgiana turns to her old childhood playmate (and future prime minister), the handsome Lord Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, “The History Boys”). As their attraction smolders, Charles’ youthful ardor clearly preferable to the duke’s icy disregard, the story plays out as a drama of true love tragically stifled — and auds, in turn, may feel the urge to stifle a yawn.
After a series of gritty docs for British TV, Dibb made his bigscreen debut in 2004 with the compelling gangland saga “Bullet Boy.” “The Duchess,” his first foray into distant history, unfolds with an assured sense of rhythm and visual polish (courtesy of editor Masahiro Hirakubo and d.p. Gyula Pados, respectively). The chambers are exquisitely furnished, the gardens impeccably maintained; Rachel Portman’s score piles on yard after tasteful yard of angsty accompaniment.
But in denuding their story of anything that might tax the intellect, Dibb and his co-scribes have stripped away the most compelling reasons to dramatize their heroine’s remarkable life. Wigs matter more than Whigs in this picture, which seems more enthralled by the duchess’ mile-high coiffure than by her tireless efforts on her party’s behalf, missing an opportunity to comment on never-more-relevant issues of feminism, fame and politics.
How Georgiana exploited both her celebrity and her instinctive empathy with commoners to drum up electoral support for her close associate, Lord Charles Fox (an underused Simon McBurney), is dealt with only superficially. Though equally apolitical, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” displayed more insight into its subject (an acquaintance of Georgiana’s, and arguably the less interesting figure) than “The Duchess” manages with its more straightforward reading of history.
While Knightley ably embodies Georgiana’s easy wit, occasional naivete and ahead-of-her-time common sense, her performance is somewhat diminished by its familiarity and the film’s reductive view of its protag. And as lovely as the actress is, all that finery can have a smothering effect; she looked more radiant amid the sweat and squalor of Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice.”
Fiennes (23 years Knightley’s senior, despite their characters’ eight-year age gap) admirably renders the duke less a villain than a weary pragmatist, capable of cruelty but also odd flashes of compassion. Rampling projects warm steel as Georgiana’s mother and closest confidante, while Atwell (“Brideshead Revisited”) subtly suggests Bess’ capacities for both loyalty and treachery.