About 20 minutes into “The Duchess,” you may ask yourself: Isn’t this a bit much? Haven’t I seen other lush period pieces about spirited young women who are slowly but surely crushed by loveless marriages and sexist double standards?
Haven’t I watched enough rich and miserable 18th century nobles making scenes in front of their astonished servants?
For all but the Anglophile or tearjerker junkie, the answer is probably “yes.” But for those who persevere, “The Duchess” proves to be surprising, dealing with its familiar material in a particularly complex way. The costumes and hairstyles may be over the top, but the evolution of the title character is understated and compelling.
Based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography of the same name and directed by Saul Dibb, “The Duchess” tells the story of Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley), the first wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She marries at 17, only to find that the duke is the kind of Terrible English Husband we’ve seen before: more interested in his hounds than his wife, obsessed with producing a male heir and unfaithful.
Georgiana’s elegance and wit soon make her a fashion icon and political force, but her husband’s shenanigans, along with Georgiana’s own love for future Prime Minister Earl Gray (Dominic Cooper), provide plenty to talk about in the servants’ quarters.
What’s interesting about all this is not the soupy melodrama, but the aftermath.
Jane Austen isn’t around here to make it all come right in the end, and the duchess must grapple with the consequences.
There is a small chance that I was unduly influenced by the sheer beauty of the film, with sweeping views of the English countryside and jaw-dropping dresses. But the actors have something to do with it as well. Fiennes’ presence as the duke changes the story. It would have been easy to cast or portray this character as a straightforward, slimy villain, but somehow his skillful performance delays our judgment and keeps us guessing, even as he commits unspeakable acts.
The real revelation here is Knightley. In some of her previous roles, particularly in the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, she has seemed a bit of a one-trick pony, relying on a slightly constipated, teeth-clenching style of acting. Here, however, she proves herself to be quite versatile as she takes Georgiana from impulsive girlhood to somber resignation. Her simple reactions to some of the worst turns in her story are to her credit, and give the film its heart.
She is most moving when we see her with her children. As maternal love takes Georgiana to unexpected places, the story ultimately becomes a valentine to motherhood.
“The Duchess” takes another look at the sacrifices of women in other times and places, and challenges us to view this aspect of our past not only with condemnation, but also with compassion – making this film both trite and fresh.