To readers of a certain age, the term “just like ‘Masterpiece Theatre'” summons up a vision of stately mansions, dated hairdos, crisp accents and immaculate recreation of a period long gone by. To say “The Duchess” belongs to that category is neither praise nor rebuke: It's the latest in an endless line of the handsome historical dramas the British do so well.
If you're fond of wigs, you may be in heaven. If you're more interested in Whigs, you may wish the movie had dug deeper under the lovely powdered surface of Lady Georgiana Spencer.
She married the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774, one day before her 17th birthday. (He was 25.) They lived in a state of polite indifference and mutual neglect for more than 15 years, until she produced an all-important male heir to go with two ignored daughters.
During that time, he amused himself with hunting and a long-standing relationship with her closest confidant, Lady Elizabeth Foster. She amused herself by becoming a devoted attendee at the gaming tables and political meetings, where she used her influence to advance the causes of the Whig Party. Her birth lines, legitimate and illegitimate, eventually led to Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York.
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Director Saul Dibb, who wrote the script with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, plays fast and loose with even the few facts I know. He cast beanpole fashion plate Keira Knightley as the ample Duchess and Ralph Fiennes as the Duke, though the 45-year-old Fiennes is so much Knightley's senior that the relationship seems almost oedipal. The filmmakers downplay politics and social activism, as if the Duchess were indulging whims rather than trying to shape policy.
Yet within the sphere they've chosen for their story – really more of a romantic triangle – it works. Though Knightley never seems to age from 17 to 35, her intensity suits the frustration of a woman who was essentially sold by her mother to be a royal brood mare and is never deeply befriended by anyone but Bess Foster, who reluctantly betrays her. (Bess needed the duke's influence to prevent her husband from abusing her.) Hayley Atwell, last seen as a chattering woman of the 1920s in “Brideshead Revisited,” exudes vitality and empathy as Bess.
The writers take extra care to make the duke neither a monster nor a cipher. He can be rude to the point of cruelty and heartless in demanding that his desires be satisfied, but he reserves some of his universal contempt for himself. He realizes he's a powerful man with neither the wisdom to wield power well nor the drive to use it selfishly, outside his own castle. Fiennes tempers his usual chilly remoteness with a hint of sadness, and that suits this version of the character.
Famous politicians and men of culture pop their heads round the corner now and then, including Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (who allegedly satirized the couple in “The School for Scandal”).
They're part of a world to which the real Georgiana belonged, but which the screen Georgiana hardly inhabits. Her tragedy in “The Duchess” is that her love failed to find full scope in a frozen marriage, not that her personality failed to find full scope in a male-dominated world.