Starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, September 26, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
The Duchess is handsome, well-crafted entertainment that invites the viewer to draw parallels between the cosseted (and corseted) life of 18th-century aristocrats and the out-of-touch ruling class of today.
Keira Knightley plays Lady Georgiana Spencer, a distant ancestor to Lady Diana, who also married badly, to an older, colder man. Georgiana didn’t know what she was in for when she hooked up with the handsome Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), who is so used to getting his own way that he hardly notices when other people suffer.
The suffering begins when Georgiana finds that “He has no interests other than his dogs”, as she tells her icy mother (the well-matched Charlotte Rampling). That’s before he takes her best friend (Brideshead Revisited’s Hayley Atwell) as a mistress in her own home. Well, to be fair, the other woman is capable of producing male children.
Elegantly directed by newcomer Saul Dibb—who wrote the smart, if somewhat superficial, screenplay with American Jeffrey Hatcher and Denmark’s Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers, After the Wedding)—the movie also paints a broader picture of life in Georgian England, with some fat cats (including the duke) backing gradual democratization on the eve of revolution, and others (like the duke, again) resisting it. Simon McBurney is especially good as Charles Fox, the fiery leader of the reformist Whig party, with The History Boys’ Dominic Cooper as future prime minister Charles Grey, Fox’s able protégé and rival for Georgiana’s affections.
Although distractingly thin for the period, Knightley brings considerable fire to a role that could be considered too passive to sustain interest. But Fiennes steals the show by bringing subtle shadings to a deeply incurious man with occasional stabs of conscience.