The Duchess: Keira Knightley’s Controversial Tale of a Royal Spencer Coming to Netflix
La Duchesse (M, 110mins) Directed by Saul Dibb ****
Althorp Estate, April 1774.
16-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) is the life and soul of the party. Whether it is to organize races among men, or to court with her friends, she invigorates all around her a joie de vivre.
But under this free spirit, there is also an accomplished woman who speaks French, Italian and Latin and who perfectly masters horse riding.
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These attributes have caught the attention of the Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes), but what he really needs to know is if she can produce a male heir. After an assurance from his mother (Charlotte Rampling), the Duke decides the match must be done.
However, it doesn’t take long before the problems start. Georgiana had hoped that the Duke’s cold reserve might hide a depth of feeling, but he seemed more interested in his dogs than she was.
“How foolish of me to think that I could converse with my husband,” she complains.
Worse yet, she finds out that the old ram is killing someone else and that he already has a daughter. “This will give you a chance to practice your skills as a mother until your son arrives,” is the Duke’s only discussion on the matter. Things get even worse when their firstborn is the “wrong sex”.
Far from her domestic life, Georgiana is celebrated. A subject of universal discussion, she is known as the empress of fashion. But rumors are circulating about her marriage, to the popular Richard Brinsley Sheridan play, School of scandal, a thinly veiled satire of the Devonshires, and the comment is frequently passed that the Duke “must be the only man in England not in love with his wife”.
At the time of the film’s original release in 2008, especially in Britain, there was a lot of talk about the similarities between this historic tale and a more recent royal wedding involving a popular princess and a man who likes to talk to plants. Indeed, you almost expect Georgiana to say: “There were three of us in the marriage”. But the comparison adds extra pizzazz to this lavish and solid, if unspectacular, period drama.
Based on the best-selling biography of Georgiana by Amanda Foreman in 1998, the plot of The Duchess also, unfortunately, evokes memories of the failure of the period piece The other Boleyn girl. However, the concise and ominous script by writer-director Saul Dibb (co-written with Danish dynamo Anders Thomas Jensen and Jeffrey Hatcher) does its best not to get bogged down in politics and, instead, focuses on an emotional core, while doing the mostly bodice rip and room jump antics.
Dibb also excels with his clever use of focus and makes good use of Rebecca Alleway’s opulent set design and Michael O’Connor’s gorgeous costumes.
Naturally, the latter are used to the most devastating effect on Knightley, then specialist in dramatic costumes (The edge of love, pride and prejudice). Although this Bride of Frankenstein-the bouffant role did nothing to dispel the truly unwarranted criticism at the time of her limited reach and visible ribs, she proves she’s no light, defending herself against sage advice and restraint from Rampling (Pool) and the new contender to his throne Hayley Atwell (Captain America).
However, the real scene thief in the movie is Fiennes (Schindler’s list, The English patient). Although he played a cad of a few words, he manages to elicit both hatred and sympathy from the audience in equal amounts.
It was a measured and meticulous performance that demonstrated why he is one of the best actors of the past 30 years.
The Duchess is now available to stream on Netflix.