A sweeping period drama about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, The Duchess is a bland, largely flavorless story that takes one of the more interesting women in British history and reduces her largely to her relationships with the men in her life. From a purely technical standpoint, there's nothing bad to say about the filmmaking: The extravagant period costumes are resplendent with detail, the cinematography is gorgeous, the music is soaring, and the acting's solid but not great, but overall the film left me with the feeling of biting into a cream puff and finding that someone forgot the custard filling, leaving nothing but a hollow pastry and empty air.
Part of what hurts the film is the script, which is based on the
autobiography of the same name by Amanda T. Foreman. There are three screenwriters credited to the film (which may be part of the problem): Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Saul Dibb, the film's director. Their script takes the life story of a vibrant woman who was politically active and influential a century before the women's suffrage movement, and dilutes it to little more than a romantic drama of love triangles and oppression. Which is fine, I suppose, if that's all you want or expect of a period piece, but I was left with the feeling that there was so much more that was important and interesting about Georgiana's life that got lost in the focus on making a tragically romantic tale.
And honestly, how many period dramas do we need to see where the entire focus of the film is on the ways in which women in earlier centuries were abused and oppressed? From a historical perspective, of course that's not unimportant, but this isn't a documentary, it's a drama. Yes, Georgiana's husband was probably a controlling, unemotional man who did whatever he wanted while imprisoning her within the marriage. Yes, her choices as a woman during that time period were limited. But we already know those things, so tell us what we don't know, show us something different, and most importantly show us more about the ways in which she rose above the oppression of the era, rather than the ways in which her wings were clipped by it.
The film delves only very briefly into Georgina's political activism; she was an important supporter of Whig politician Charles Fox, a distant cousin, and her affair with Charles Grey nearly ended his political career before he could become Prime Minister. But we see only glimpses of this in the film, and I kept waiting for the better film about what an interesting person Georgiana was; unfortunately, it never comes.
Dibb does deal with the love triangle (if you can call it that) involving Georgiana's husband and her best friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), who moves into the Duke's home and stays for the entirety of Georgiana's marriage. Even in this, though, Dibb messes with history to lend Bess' predicament extra sympathy, by positioning it that she becomes involved with her best friend's husband only to use the Duke's influence to get her children from her husband -- when the real Bess was kept apart from her children for 14 years. In this alternate-reality version of history, Bess and her children are joyfully reunited, take up residence in the Duke's home, and frolic merrily on the lawn with Georgiana's brood.
There are several conversations about Georgiana's marriage and how it was a bad match emotionally, albeit a brilliant one from the viewpoint of position and place in society, but very little of Georgiana's spunk and spirit; mostly, we see her spirit broken, repeatedly, until she finally gives in and accepts her fate and duty. When opportunities arise to explore other aspects of her character, they're briefly touched upon and then tossed aside. When asked by her new husband whether she designs her own gowns, and why she would do so, Georgiana replies that fashion is the one area where women are able to express themselves, whereas men have many other avenues with which to do so. This is a fine point to make, but would have been more effective if we'd seen more of how Georgiana utilized fashion as an outlet for pent-up creative expression, and less of her as a sort of Paris Hilton of her time.
As far as the casting goes, Ralph Fiennes is appropriately remote and stoic as the Georgiana's husband, the Fifth Duke of Devonshire, and there's nothing particularly wrong with Keira Knightley's performance, although she feels considerably miscast, at least appearance-wise; Georgiana was fashionable and influential, but her portraits don't reveal a delicate, beautiful woman, which Knightley is, and casting the Georgina as some rare beauty is another way in which the film detracts from an emphasis it could have had on her character and intellect. I'd rather have seen a less classically pretty actress, wearing significantly less makeup, in the role.
In so many ways, The Duchess is all just surface glitz and glam wrapped around a mundane tale, when it could have been an intriguing glimpse into the life of a woman who was influential in spite of the ties that bound her. The Duchess could have given us an interesting portrait of a vibrant, intelligent woman who was well ahead of her time in her ideas and opinions; its real tragedy is that it never lets gain an understanding of that woman, and thus, in the end is little more than yet another fluff period drama with some nice costumes.