Yes, there’s no getting away from the fact that The Duchess has a certain air of Masterpiece Theatre-itis about it. It’s a little too genteel, a little too mannered. It has that peculiar air of characters who say things as if they knew all along that someday someone would make a film about them. And at times, it suffers from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic complaint about period pictures, which was that he could never believe any of the characters go to the bathroom.
Now, having said all that, The Duchess also has a lot going for it—ranging from the performances to the musical score to the visual elegance brought to the film by director Saul Dibb and to the undercurrents of feminism and politics that run throughout the film. Make no mistake—even though it’s not as overt about it as it might be—this is a very political film. It’s housed in a star-crossed-lovers yarn, combined with a sizable dollop of mother-love melodrama, but its themes are considerably weightier than that suggests. Considering the real-life story of the Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), could the film have gone further than it does politically? It certainly could have, but the approach taken may just be more insidiously subversive.
The film charts the life of Georgiana Spencer, from the age of 17 when her mother (Charlotte Rampling) arranges an advantageous marriage for her to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), to Georgiana’s ultimate philosophical acceptance of her lot in life many years later. (In keeping with the current trend on biopics, the “rest” of the story is conveyed via title cards at the end.) From the onset, historical accuracy is shunted to one side. It’s easy enough to accept the 23-year-old Knightley as being 17, but the 45-year-old Fiennes as the 27-year-old Duke? Fortunately, the film makes no reference to his age—and, in truth, the couple’s relationship makes better dramatic sense with the greater disparity in ages. Along with the sense of some deep-seated sense of the tragic that Fiennes brings to the role, the age difference certainly helps make an unpalatable character a bit more understandable, if not likable.
Everything about the film is geared to the central theme of the disenfranchised state of women at the time of the story—and indeed, the similarly disenfranchised state of most of humanity in such a class system. What is interesting is that all of the characters—even the Duke—are somewhat at odds with that system and are making inroads into a call for greater freedom, despite the fact that these freedoms are limited and intended to be carefully doled out by society’s betters to a select few.
Perhaps even more interesting is the complete lack of moral judgment as concerns the tangled love lives of the main characters. That the Duke ends up taking Georgiana’s friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell, Brideshead Revisited), as his mistress, setting up a ménage à trois of almost Noel Coward proportions, is taken in stride. Similarly, the undercurrent of a more-than-friendly attraction between Georgiana and Bess is a nonissue. And to a great extent, the same could be said of Georgiana’s affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, The History Boys)—except for the fact that she’s a little too brazen about it. Public opinion is at issue, but morals are not—and if there is even a passing mention of religion in the film, I missed it.
Visually, The Duchess is invariably pleasing and, on occasion, quite striking. Dibb is very adept at using the moving camera; the tracking shot in the wedding scene early in the film is a stunner. In addition, Rachel Portman provides the film with an excellent musical score, and the performances are beyond reproach. Knightley again proves that she’s got what it takes to carry a movie, but probably the most complex performance is from Fiennes. His ability to suggest depths and sadness beneath the surface of his character as written elevates a simple role into something that’s a joy to behold. All told, it’s a film of elegance, wit and some power that’s just a bit too compromised by its rather soapy underpinnings. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.