1774. Outside, Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is cavorting with young men and women her own age (late teens), while inside, her mother finalizes an arrangement with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), one of the wealthiest men in England. Her mother calls her in. She is to be married to the Duke, she tells her. Georgiana is astonished and delighted. “He loves me?!” she marvels, as if that had anything to do with it. She will learn better in due course.
Sex: “it can be a bother,” allows Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) when her daughter confides that her new marriage is not all she hoped it would be. The Duke labours honourably to secure a male heir – but when it comes to fun, he prefers to dally with the chambermaids. But that’s not what really bothers Georgiana. She’s sharp, intelligent, and enjoys the cut and thrust of rhetorical debate. The Duke, on the other hand, is curt and taciturn and shows no interest in ideas whatsoever. He’s old enough to be her father, but he’s her intellectual inferior. He’s also arrogant enough to bring his bastard daughter Charlotte into the household and demand that Georgiana bring her up as her own – it will be good practice, he explains.
The parallels between Georgiana’s life and her distant descendent Diana Spencer’s have been somewhat over-stated, except in so far as the aristocracy’s notions of duty and decorum don’t seem to have changed much over the last three centuries. What’s good for the goose isn’t any business of the gander, and open secrets are all very well so long as it stays out of the press.
It’s not immediately apparent what connects this film to Saul Dibbs’ last, Bullet Boy, except that it’s obvious he doesn’t want to be categorized too easily. He doesn’t go the Sofia Coppola route and contemporarize the period film, this is more an exercise in bringing back some energy to classical Brit costume drama virtues: literate script, mature characters, splendid architecture. It’s a very handsome film, beautifully shot by Gyula Pados (Kontroll), with ostentatious costumes and design – appropriately, as Georgiana became the trendsetter for all London. This is a great movie for wigs and millinery – and for Whigs too. Simon McBurney is the party leader, Mr Fox, and Dominic Cooper is a young political firebrand, Charles Grey, a future Prime Minister and the true love of Georgiana’s life, apparently.
Georgiana’s protégé Richard Sheridan was inspired to write his great comedy of manners “School for Scandal” at this time. Although it has moments of sly wit, sadly “The Duchess” settles for old fashioned melodramatic hand-wringing. “G”, as she’s known to the Duke, produces daughters not sons. He turns to her best friend, the widow Bess (Hayley Atwell) for affection and puts his foot down when his wife tries a dose of the same medicine.
This is palpably unfair, as Dibbs is at pains to point out. But that’s hardly a revelation. The Duchess’s progressive ideas about freedom and equality certainly sound very modern (to a fault: the dialogue occasionally veers towards something you might hear in a sixth form debate) but there’s little notion that the social tumult going on across the channel will upset the order of things over here.
Performance-wise, Knightley grows in stature in the role as G’s life gets harder, though she’s a little old for the early scenes and a little young for the later ones. She does do a fine drunk and high dudgeon. I was less impressed with Atwell and Cooper, neither of whom seemed worthy of her affection, but Ralph Fiennes is superb as the Duke, winkling out completely unreasonable sympathies for a hollow shell of a man who is, in some ways, just as trapped by convention as his poor wife.Tom Charity
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