“The Duchess” is one of the best and most opulently entertaining historical dramas I have seen in a long time, and it features splendid performances from Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.
Knightley has been much maligned lately as a sort of fluffy, airhead presence, and I must concede that her work in the hollow, overpraised “Atonement” struck me as vain and shallow.
But as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, she is not only a magnificent presence but a strong and convincing character who reminds us that against enormous odds, the concept of the brave “modern woman” has always existed and endured.
A distant aunt of Princess Diana, Georgiana is more interesting, most notably because she labored and flourished under much more oppressive circumstances. And she had something to say about the politics in her country.
Thrust into a loveless marriage by her ambitious mother (Charlotte Rampling),
DIRECTED BY Saul Dibb
SCREENPLAY BY Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Saul Dibb, based on the book “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” by Amanda Foreman
STARRING Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney and Aidan McArdle
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
Georgiana was chosen as little more than a breeding machine for the powerful Duke of Devonshire, played by Fiennes. She was further humiliated when her husband openly consorted and lived in the palace with another woman, Lady Elizabeth Foster, played by Hayley Atwell. As depicted here and in “Georgiana of Devonshire,” the book upon which the movie is based, the duchess was upset not because her husband was once more proving he was a lecherous creep, but because she was losing her best friend.
If you want to talk about the virtue of feminine power in all its positive splendor, Georgiana had it in spades. The movie shows convincingly how she grew from the 16-year-old victim to a powerful member of the court. She held her own in political discussions with future and present prime ministers, and was widely known as a liberal who favored independence for the upstart colonists in America.
Much to endure
If men loved being around her, from prime ministers to playwright Richard Sheridan (“School for Scandal”), and if she delighted members of the court with her flair and intelligence, she also suffered as a woman who had more to endure than being the wife of a lascivious scoundrel. Because an affair wounded the duke’s reputation, she was bullied into abandoning the relationship with the man she loved; he was Lord Grey, the fledgling prime minister played by Dominic Cooper.
And there were more heartbreaking indignities to come.
Though the ads for “The Duchess” may lead some observers to conclude that it is one more “Masterpiece Theater” clone or a vapid period melodrama, it is a rich, thoroughly absorbing narrative with contemporary overtones. I must acknowledge that I thought not only of Diana, who had much less to endure, but also of Hillary Clinton. With “The Duchess” as a referent, I feel sure that one day, perhaps, when we are no longer around, viewers will be watching a historical drama about a first lady and presidential aspirant, a powerful lady who was either misunderstood or understood all to well. A lady who was both loved and maligned.
As for this drama, directed with exquisite taste by Saul Dibb, I cannot say enough about Knightley’s effort. There’s ample evidence here that she has matured into a formidable actress more than capable of handling a title role with sophistication and intelligence. Along with her, let us not forget Fiennes, who displays his ability to take his character and turn it into more than that of a bully. He gives the duke a humanity that occasions pity as much as disdain.
His is the inevitable fate of a powerful man who engages with a brave and intelligent woman who happens to be the centerpiece of this marvelous film I request you do not overlook.
Reach Gazette film critic Dan DiNicola at [email protected]