DARKER THAN the lavish trailer suggests, The Duchess tells the surprisingly grim story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her marriage during the late 18th century.
Married at 17 to the much older, hugely wealthy, Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana is instantly elevated into society. Yet her relationship with her faithless, often cruel husband is in stark contrast to the glittering façade she displays in public.
Played by Keira Knightley, Georgiana is initially lively and witty. Attempting to shrug off the Duke’s various affairs and raising his illegitimate daughter as her own, she soon settles into high society life.
However, when the Duke (Ralph Fiennes ) begins a serious affair with her close friend Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell ), Georgiana feels betrayed. Forced to remain married to the Duke and continue living with him and Elizabeth, Georgiana begins an affair of her own with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper ), a young but ambitious politician.
The lavish period detail and sumptuous interiors serve as effective backgrounds for what is less a love story and more a feminist parable about the absolute power husbands historically had over their wives.
The suggestion of parallels with the late Princess Diana is somewhat laboured and artificial, as the two women appeared to have been very different. Georgiana is shown as spirited, somewhat rebellious, and passionately involved in politics.
A more subtle parallel to current events can be found in a speech Charles Grey delivers to an enthusiastic crowd, urging the public that it is time for a change.
The beautiful Knightley is improving as an actress and acquits herself well here. The role of Georgiana is particularly demanding as Knightley is required to be in almost every scene. At times she indulges in some overacting, but in other scenes she movingly demonstrates her character’s inward distress.
Fiennes is reliably excellent as the cold, calculating Duke. In a single scene with Knightley when he clumsily attempts to show warmth towards her, the changes which pass across his face are startling. Charlotte Rampling is superb as Georgiana’s exacting, austere mother. Like Fiennes, she perfectly captures the aristocratic chilliness of her character.
Audiences hoping for a feel-good costume drama might be shaken at this often bleak depiction of an aristocratic marriage, despite the ornate interiors and sprawling estates. More a tearjerker than a period romp, this story has more weight than is usually found in the standard costume drama.