TORONTO—The Duchess, the film that Keira Knightley brought to the Toronto International Film Festival, tells the story of a British aristocrat named Spencer. She marries a titled man and becomes a fashion icon and the most influential person in Britain before having a relationship with another man to avenge her husband’s affair.
Although that may sound a little familiar, the film is not the story of Diana, Princess of Wales, but of an 18th-century ancestor named Georgiana.
Knightley isn’t comfortable with comparisons, even while standing a few feet from a poster whose tag line reads: “There were three people in her marriage.” She says, in a Toronto hotel room, that although she has an understanding of the story of the woman she portrays, she missed out on much of the hype that surrounded Diana.
“I was 11 when she died, and I am very aware of the images but not what her story is, and not enough to draw any direct parallels. I didn’t look into her life as any inspiration for the character, partly because we were basing it on a wonderful biography.
"So we did intend to make a movie on Georgiana, not Diana. That may be something that the marketing department of the studio is interested in, but there is a big difference between the people who market the film and the people who make it.”
The screenplay is based on the Amanda Foreman biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and tells the story of a teenager who marries the duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), a leading force in the new Whig Party. He chooses Georgiana because her mother has promised that male heirs will arrive almost immediately. Instead, Georgiana gives him two daughters.
Although Georgiana is unhappy with her marriage, she finds solace in her political and fashion influence and in her best friend, Bess (Hayley Atwell), who has moved into her home at her request. However, the duke claims Bess for his own, and in her loneliness Georgiana sets off a scandal by finding comfort with a married politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The film opens tomorrow.
Knightley says she was drawn to a story that she felt was relevant to people in modern relationships despite its 18th-century setting.
“The thing that interested me was the idea of someone living with a husband that she doesn’t understand, and it becomes almost like two magnets repelling each other, because there is no comfort between these people. I also thought that there was an interesting journey in terms of the friendship between two women, because it eventually leads to this horrendous situation she finds herself in.
"And I found the story inspiring because she survives these things. I didn’t want to play her as a victim, because I don’t think that is particularly attractive as a character trait.”
Knightley first gained attention with Bend It Like Beckham but followed up with a series of period films: Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But she is not concerned about being pigeonholed.
“I think it would be cutting your nose off to spite your face if you turned down a fantastic character simply because it was set 200 years ago,” she says. “What I love about these kinds of film is that they are complete escapism. I find personally that seeing these weird costumes and sets helps me to forget my life and helps me to dive into stories. It’s a way to get into a fantastic fantasy world.”
Knightley may not know much about Diana, but as a movie star she is certainly aware of another of the film’s themes: the perils of celebrity. She says she was surprised that Georgiana used popularity to compensate for personal problems, and that she hopes no one assumes it was easy for her to relate to the character.
“I will have to admit that I thought celebrity culture was a modern phenomenon,” she says. “I had no idea that it was happening 300 years ago. I thought it was the least interesting aspect of the story, although I did think that the way she used it was a manipulation of image. It said something about her mental state, because the more her marriage started to collapse the more attention she needed from complete strangers. But I wasn’t trying to draw any parallels with myself.”