A handsome if somewhat slight period drama based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire and the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales.
A young vibrant beauty lands what looks like a dazzling match, and becomes a celebrated and loved figure as well as a fashion icon, while trapped in a loveless marriage and suffering the humiliation of a very public ménage à trois. You certainly don’t need to look too hard for the parallels. While Princess Diana is still to get her great biopic, her 18th-century counterpart got this lavish and well-acted movie which, if nothing else, is surely home to some of the most spectacular costumes ever put onscreen.
In 1774, young Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is to marry William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes), Duke of Devonshire. While initially she revels in her newfound stature and wealth, she soon realises that her cold fish husband harbours more affection for his hunting dogs than he does for his wife. As portrayed by the movie, Georgiana is a modern woman well ahead of her time, outspoken and eager to participate in the politics, but in the eyes of the Duke she only has one purpose: to provide him with a son.
A few years down the track, Georgiana has two healthy daughters and is a loving mother to her husband’s child from an earlier affair, but after a couple of stillbirths and miscarriages a male heir is still elusive. Worse still, Georgiana’s patience for her husband’s dalliances finally snaps when he targets her best friend Bess (Hayley Atwell), who lives with the couple after falling on hard times. She decides that it’s a fair game for her to chase her own love affair with an aspiring politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but of course it’s just not how the 18th century rolls when it comes to women.
While the Oscar-winning costumes do steal the film, Keira Knightley is very solid as headstrong Georgiana and she can certainly rock those corsets and skyscraper wigs. Ralph Fiennes however is the film’s real MVP. His understated performance gives texture and nuance to a character that could have remained a crude one-dimensional monster. The strange negative chemistry (if there’s such a thing) between Georgiana and her husband, and the unconventional domestic arrangement between them and Bess, are compelling in the way Georgiana’s love affair with Grey is sadly not. Nothing against the actor, but while Grey is undoubtedly framed as a smouldering romantic interest, he and Georgiana have no chemistry and I just didn’t buy it that she would risk everything in her life for him.
The film’s biggest flaw however is that you only get a very superficial impression of Georgiana as a public figure, leaving me with a sense that the movie only scratched the surface of what must have been a fascinating life lived by a remarkable woman. For one thing, the movie doesn’t spend any time on Georgiana’s transformation from a pretty teenage girl into a savvy and sophisticated woman who holds her own in a company of politicians. As a result, while The Duchess is a convincing portrait of the sexual double standards and misogyny of the times, the film’s nods to Georgiana’s intelligence and political interests feel like froth.
The Duchess may not be a particularly memorable biopic, but as a lover of period movies I still enjoyed it quite a bit. And – I know I’m repeating myself – those wigs man!