Review by Jack Foley
PRINCESS Diana comparisons aside, there are plenty of other reasons to see The Duchess, a sumptuous new costume drama from a director who has previously given us Bullet Boy.
Saul Dibb’s film boasts outstanding performances from its three leads (Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes and Hayley Atwell), a keen eye for period detail and also a heartbreaking insight into the hardship endured by one of history’s most colourful characters.
Set in 18th Century England, the film picks up as 19-year-old Georgiana (Knightley) marries the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes) and quickly finds herself to be the new darling of London society.
But while the public adores her, Georgiana’s marriage is far from happy as the couple struggle to bear a male heir. When the Duke openly begins to take mistresses, Georgiana seeks solace in her close friend and ally, Bess Foster (Atwell), as well as the political idealist Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). But will she ever be able to find true happiness?
Given that Geogiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was the great-great-great-great aunt of Princess Diana, and their lives shared many similarities, it’s hardly surprising that the distributors of the film have chosen to highlight the parallel in a lot of the film’s marketing (the poster alone reads “there were three in her marriage”).
But while the comparisons (both women lived their lives in the public eye and were often perceived as tragic figures trapped in loveless marriages) undoubtedly lend The Duchess extra contemporary resonance, the film itself is keen not to exploit them. Rather, it’s more interested in allowing Georgiana’s story to stand on its own merits – which it subsequently does in engaging fashion.
The director is also well served by his cast, most of whom deliver mature, deliberately under-stated performances. Knightley, who is no stranger to costume/period dramas, shows great depth as The Duchess, occupying almost every scene and balancing Georgiana’s sadness with a steely determination to survive, even though her will cannot always prevail.
Fiennes, too, offers a masterclass in suppressed emotion, frequently resorting to despicable actions, yet somehow managing to infuse someone who could have been a one-dimensional character with a suggestion of confusion and even self-loathing. The scenes shared by Knightley and Fiennes are frequently among the finest the film has to offer.
Strong, too, is Hayley Atwell, whose equally wily Bess manages to combine elements of femininity, eroticism and sensitivity with a similar determination to do what is necessary to survive in her era.
The only slightly weak link is Dominic Cooper who, sadly, isn’t afforded the screen-time to make his depiction of Charles Grey (a future Prime Minister) possess either the gravitas or emotional clout that he undoubtedly possessed. Sadly, this also undermines the tragedy of their doomed relationship as well.
Minor criticisms aside, however, Dibb deserves credit for refusing to conform to too many period stereotypes, while still ensuring that eagle-eyed attention is paid to both the majestic residences and flamboyant fashions of the day.
The Duchess is therefore a thought-provoking and powerful movie that’s to be enjoyed on many levels, and one that confirms Dibb as a director with a very bright future, and Knightley as a rapidly maturing leading lady of both sophistication and grace.
Running time: 110mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: March 16, 2009
- Read the review
- Keira Knightley interview
- Hayley Atwell interview
- Saul Dibb interview
- Dominic Cooper interview
- The Duchess photo gallery
- Read our preview