British Actress The Only Bright Spot In This Confused Period Piece
Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is a catch for any suitor. Pretty, vivacious, intelligent, and young, she is exactly the sort of girl the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) seeks to make his bride. Watching from an upstairs window at how Georgiana and her teenage friends cavort on the estate lawn below, he has only one question for her mother (Charlotte Rampling)--will she bear him a son? "The women in our family have always been capable," she proudly replies, and so he strikes the deal. Her mother calls Georgiana inside to let her know she's been engaged, and that is the beginning of Georgiana's transformation into the Duchess of Devonshire, an Eva Perón-sized object of chic, verve, and public adoration.
Being the Duke's wife isn't all it's cracked up to be, though. Georgiana quickly learns the Duke only has sentimental feelings for his hunting dogs, and that he considers her a poor investment when she stubbornly keeps bearing female children. Georgiana is undaunted, declaring she loves all her girls--even her "oldest," the illegitimate offspring of her husband and a servant girl. She refuses to let her husband's sour mood ruin her fun dancing, gambling, unveiling outrageous outfits and wigs, campaigning for her childhood confidant Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), and hobnobbing with dear friends like Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), an equally unhappy wife of an equally Neanderthal aristocrat. But there's only so much she can do to stay above water before the restrictive codes of her day start to permanently damage her happiness. When the only marital advice her mother can give is opting for "patience, fortitude, and resignation" in dealing with her husband, something tells us Georgiana's elation at marrying a duke is not long for this world.
It's admirable how forward-thinking Georgiana is for her time, but The Duchess pushes her feminist sentiments to the point of anachronism. Georgiana loves designing her own clothes because "men have so many ways to express themselves, and we have so few"? She sits at the head of an all-male political dinner as a teenage newlywed and opines on the Whig Party's views on freedom? When the Duke never bothers at tenderness in bed, she finds satisfaction instead by dallying in candlelit bedchambers with Bess? She's born to an upper-crust family where wet nurses are a constant part of the household staff and yet insists on nursing her own babies? Did the La Leche League bankroll this movie? When she complains bitterly to Charles Grey that she has been so well-trained at pleasing other people she has no idea how to please herself, it's as if she's musing on a page from her tear-off calendar of Meditations for Duchesses Who Do Too Much.
But Knightley shines in her sometimes didactic role. I can't think of another modern actress who can wear period costume without subconsciously stiffening inside her dress-up clothes. (Can you imagine her in the vinyl and latex of a sci-fi movie? It can't be done--there's something about her that's born to vintage couture.) Her talent could be in danger of being overshadowed by her good looks, but both wither in comparison to the indefinable x-quality that illuminates her face from within. Of all the A-list beauties working today--Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, even her doppelgänger Natalie Portman--not one could be photographed à la George Hurrell without seeming precociously retro--except Knightley. She occupies that tight circle of Garbo and Deneuve and Seberg, of actresses who dominate the eye not because of their histrionics but because of the inescapable gravitational pull their incandescent faces exert on everything else inside the screen.
Unfortunately, despite the cast's best efforts (and the screenplay's best ideological intentions), what we have here is the story of a woman ultimately worn down to obeisance by cruelty, heartbreak, and a repressive society. If the movie had been honest about its tragic essence, there'd be the satisfaction of a drama played to its logical end, but instead we're supposed to cheer her small victories and enjoy the fashion show while wondering why an encroaching cloud of gloom is slowly weighing down our mood. The Duchess doesn't quite succeed as a costume epic, or a historical window, or a tragedy, or a feminist screed. But Knightley succeeds in reminding us that the movie screen is where goddesses go to play. Sometimes, that's enough.