The Duchess – coming soon

Keira Knightley continues her reign as period drama queen in this tale of pomp and passion, but director Saul Dibb’s obsession with bedroom antics detracts from the extraordinary political savvy and social concern which marked the life of the real life Duchess of Devonshire.

Within a year of Princess Diana’s death, historian Amanda Foreman had released a chart topping biography of Duchess Georgiana of Devonshire, née Georgiana Spencer. The parallels between Georgiana and the late Diana Spencer, born over two centuries later, are striking. Born into the same family, both were celebrated beauties, admired and emulated by women up and down the land; both struggled to cope with the pressure of royal decorum and relentless public scrutiny; and both appeared to have fairytale marriages, which steadily crumbled thanks to another woman waiting in the wings.

Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley) is witty, beautiful and astute, and surrounded by literary and political figures from the highest echelons of society. Her husband, William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) values her only for her potential to breed, and womanises on the sly. Fed up of being treated as his chattel, Georgiana enters into an affair of her own with would-be Prime Minister Charles Grey.

Georgiana is portrayed sympathetically, but she is no shrinking violet. Rather she is continually railing against the Establishment, partly out of a genuine desire for political change, partly from sheer desperation. She doesn’t approve of her husband’s dalliances but will put up with them in exchange for a degree of independence. In contrast, Ralph Fiennes’ prickly Duke of Devonshire is all stiff upper lip and decorum. He is an irritable and curiously talismanic aristocrat who loathes intimacy, for whom lovemaking is simply an exercise in producing an heir. A lesser actor might have portrayed him as a monster, but Fiennes lends him a degree of humanity he does not deserve. Cruelly limited by his inability to relate, Cavendish tells his dejected wife “I love you, in the way I understand love.”
Hayley Atwell puts in a flighty performance as the other woman, Lady Bess Foster. Invited to Chatsworth by Georgiana, the two become best friends until noises from the bedroom turn things sour. A bizarre, but credible relationship develops between the two women as Georgiana learns to accept the continual presence of Bess and her three sons in the Devonshire household. She even refers to Devonshire as “our husband”.

Georgiana’s burgeoning relationship with the boyish Charles Grey is harder to accept. In real life Georgiana was an outspoken liberal who supported the American and French revolutions and campaigned on behalf of the reforming Whigs. But the film is so concerned with the saucier details of her relationship with Grey that their shared passion for politics is barely explored. Instead, Georgiana’s desire for reform becomes a cynical attempt to win the man she desires, whilst Grey is little more than functional.

The Duchess offers an engaging aristocratic soap opera with plenty of period colour, but beneath the frilly garters and tabloid hype your left with a barebones story of a rich girl and a rich guy who both conduct affairs. Georgiana’s life could have been turned into a fascinating political drama. Instead The Duchess settles for high-class soap opera.

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