DVD Release Date:  December 28, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  September 19, 2008 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  110 min
Director:  Saul Dibb
Cast:  Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling

A metaphor common to period pieces is how opulent exteriors often mask sordid realities.  It’s certainly a staple of The Duchess, a film based on the real-life story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.  The metaphor isn’t restricted to the film’s themes but expands, unfortunately, to its quality as well.  Though handsomely staged with a fair amount of conviction, at its core The Duchess is really nothing more than a bawdy soap opera.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire—known as much for her style and fame as her political populism—was the eighteenth-century equivalent of Princess Diana in more ways than one (fitting, as Georgiana is a direct ancestor in Diana’s Spencer Family).  Not only was she the center of Britain’s elite social circle, but she also had to suffer the cold, loveless (and arranged) marriage to an older man prone to infidelity.  The Duke sees Georgiana solely as property, her only value to him being the male heir she is expected to provide.

Adding to this marital cruelty are multiple miscarriages and the undue guilt placed upon Georgiana (by both the Duke and her mother) for bearing two daughters rather than sons.  Complicating matters even further is the Duke’s eventual live-in mistress who Georgiana must abide, even as she is forbidden to pursue her own desires with childhood love Charles Grey, a dashing bachelor who has become the youngest member of Parliament by championing Georgiana’s own political passions.  It’s a tangled web of matrimonial triangles, unrequited loves and maternal sacrifice, and it all adds up to the Duchess of Devonshire being the original Desperate Housewife.

That comparison is intentional as The Duchess ultimately plays up the most base natures of female-centric melodrama.  It provides situational complexity while avoiding internal or relational ones.  People are portrayed in mostly broad “good” or “bad” strokes, and the only complications are those of “justified” moral compromises (as opposed to true integrity).  Or to the extent a character is multifaceted, it’s done only to elicit “I love her/I hate her/No, I love her” mood swings on the part of the viewer.  Director Saul Dibb merely indulges the base emotions of the audience rather than challenging our intellect with complex characters or the moral grays inherent in the tests Georgiana must face. 

It’s unfortunate, really, to the degree that Dibb’s direction and the screenplay fail the otherwise first-rate efforts of the cast.  People seem to either love or hate Keira Knightley; I’m in the former camp, and her fierce performance as the Duchess displays both charisma and vulnerability.  It’s not a role that stretches her talents, but it does allow Knightley to play to her strengths.  When one character says of her “The Duke is the only man in Devonshire not in love with his wife,” it’s Knightley who makes the opinion fully credible.

The rest of the cast brings equal talent to bear but is given much less to work with.  As the Duke, Ralph Fiennes is saddled with a script that only portrays him in the most boorish conduct.  Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!) is the requisite Victorian beefcake as Georgiana’s lover Charles, limited in a role seemingly torn from the pages of a Harlequin romance novel.  The exception is Haley Atwell (Brideshead Revisited) ; as friend-turned-betrayer Bess, she layers a potentially catty role with a lot of nuance.