By A. K. Tucker
“The Duchess” is based on a best-selling biography and covers a period of ten or so years in the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Set in 18th century England, the film follows the charming Duchess as she becomes engaged, married and unhappily married. Despite brief allusions to her interest in politics, fashion and theater, her relations with her husband, the duke, are the focus of the movie.
“The Duchess” begins as young Georgiana Spencer is betrothed to William Cavendish, who is set to become the fifth Duke of Devonshire. Spencer’s mother arranges the match, and Georgiana is initially pleased with the elevated status she will inherit by the marriage. In exchange, it is expected that she will soon bear a son for the Duke. Once they are married, the duke proves to be a remote and harsh husband. He occupies a prominent position in politics and governs his wife as one would a province. When she births two daughters, he chastises her for failing her obligation and engages in a series of infidelities and an affair with Georgiana’s best friend Elizabeth “Bess” Foster.
Understandably unhappy with the state of her domestic affairs, Georgiana becomes a staple of the aristocratic social scene. She is a fashion icon, a mother, a gambler, involved in Whig party politics and an all-around entertainer. Witty and charismatic, she attracts a slew of admirers. Despite her inherent likeability, the duke remains unmoved and mechanical towards her. One friend remarks that every man in England is in love with the duchess, with the exception her husband. Their relations deteriorate, and this dissention and subsequent love triangles prove to be the prominent motifs of the film. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of portraying the duchess’s remarkable character. There are only brief glimpses of, say, her forays into politics, and only in relation to her love interests or to reinforce the substance of her character.
The film is adapted from Amanda Foreman’s “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.” The book received international critical acclaim and has also inspired a television documentary and radio program. The film version is directed by Paul Dibb, a British director best known for the 2004 film “Bullet Boy.” Keira Knightley, of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” portrays Duchess Georgiana, and gives a worthy performance. She has depth and poise, and shines in the portrayal of an 18th century socialite. Costar Ralph Fiennes, whose credentials include Lord Voldermort in the “Harry Potter” movies, plays the duke. He gives a very respectable performance. Largely a loathsome character, Fiennes intersperses moments of thoughtfulness that lend the duke complexity. Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper give apt supporting performances.
“The Duchess” has extravagant settings, sparkling characters and a notable wardrobe. On the surface, the movie is a pleasure to watch. However, the sub-plot is a disappointment; Georgiana’s character is not done justice. Many of the unique qualities and accomplishments that make Georgiana notable in the first place are left unattended as the tale narrows in on a singular aspect of her life following a brief introduction that hints at her depth of character. The window on an extraordinary woman’s life is focused on the substance of a romance novel.