Beautiful, headstrong young women constrained by the social mores -- and the corsets -- of their times are the meat and potatoes of the costume drama, and "The Duchess" serves up the rudimentary fare with more than the usual garnishes.
However, like the mutton served in one of the film's character-illuminating scenes, something about the movie is a little bit off.
The story is a classic one, made all the more scrumptious by the fact that it is true. Based on a well-respected biography by Amanda Foreman, "The Duchess" tells the story of Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), a spirited teen who is married off to William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), an aging, aloof aristocrat many years her senior who asks only two things of her: loyalty and a male heir.
Neither proves to be as effortless for her as he thinks it should be.
Before she hits 20, Georgiana has had one daughter, several miscarriages and two stillbirths. She has been forced to mother a child from one of the duke's many peccadilloes. She suffers the indignity of seeing and hearing her husband bed a series of women under her own roof.
In the outside world, however, the duchess is adored by commoners and aristocrats alike. She is a darling of the press, tracked by a passel of "sketcharazzi" -- cartoonists taking down her every move. She is a witty, fun-loving party guest with a penchant for drinking and wagering a pence or two at a game of cards. Her wardrobe of opulent gowns and hubcap-sized hats is widely imitated, her 3-foot-high wigs a source of marvel and her love of children legendary.
Her influence in political circles, especially in her support of the nascent, progressive Whig Party, sharply contrasts the powerlessness and loneliness she feels at home.
Any similarities to Princess Diana are not coincidental; Lady Di was a direct descendant of the duchess, and the filmmakers have taken no steps to hide that fact while marketing the film.
The lavishness of her lifestyle hides a lurid personal life heaped with scandal and betrayal.
The biggest affront occurs when Cavendish takes as his mistress Georgiana's best friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell, "Brideshead Revisited"), who assuages her guilt over looking out for herself by pushing the duchess to satisfy her passion for Charles, the Earl of Grey (Dominic Cooper, "Mamma Mia!").
The tea-for-two between Georgiana and Grey, which adds a heaping helping of heat to the film, trips off a series of betrayals, attacks and controversies, and causes the duchess' life to unravel.
There is no happy ending for Georgiana, only resignation to the compromised life that society demands of her.
There is no question that "The Duchess" fills the bill visually. Cinematographer Gyula Pados caresses the actors and scenery with her camera; the textures of the brocades and velvets are so lush you can practically feel them; and each close-up is like a Gainsborough portrait. Not since Merchant and Ivory has there been a period film so profoundly beautiful.
If for some viewers the cinematography plays a leading role, it's no surprise, because the leading lady falls a bit short.
There has been a lot of buzz about Knightley's worthiness to win an Oscar nomination for her performance. Knightley has become the heiress apparent of the period film. When was the last time she was in modern dress? "Bend it Like Beckham"? But despite her ability to drape a 30-pound period costume onto her lanky frame and drag it around with the best of them, Knightley lacks the subtlety to convincingly convey complex emotions. Throughout much of "The Duchess," we see the same Knightley we saw in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement": the jutting jaw, the wrinkly nosed smile, frustratingly flat affect and, oh, that maddening mumbling. She is the embodiment of the stiff upper lip; you can count on one hand the number of times that sucker moves.
There are a few moments when, perhaps inspired by the performances of Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling, Knightley steps up her game. In scenes where her character ages and the trials of her life have buffed off some of her beauty, Knightley shows promise. She might even elicit some tears in one particularly wrenching scene. Still, it would have been nice to see how say, Kate Winslet would have filled the role, not to mention the bodices.
Fiennes gives his usual strong, measured performance, though at times the script doesn't give him much to work with and at times his cold-hearted duke seems to veer into lord (Voldemort) territory. Still, with just a nuanced change in expression or posture, he is able to bring a suggestion of warmth and humanity to a character unable to outwardly demonstrate either.
In her portrayal of Georgiana's loving but pragmatic mother, Rampling proves that she hasn't been seen nearly enough lately. Relative unknowns Atwell and Cooper also bolster Knightley in her uneven performance.
Clocking in at under two hours, "The Duchess" is short for a costume flick, and it suffers some for the brevity. The absence of familiar historical context -- the American and French revolutions, for example -- gives the film a fictional vibe, and hints that some revisionist history was added to the screenplay to make the story more accessible to women too young to know about Gloria Steinem.
With so many details of Georgiana's life skimmed over, the significance of her liberated-before-her-time public life is sacrificed to the sexier story of her heartbreaking personal life. This is a shame, because it is the duchess' forward thinking on issues of inequality, personal freedom and power -- issues still confronting women more than 200 years later -- that makes her truly fascinating.
Review: Three stars (out of four)
In 18th century England, a young Georgiana Spencer is married off to the aging Duke of Devonshire, who asks only two things of her: loyalty and a male heir. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Hayley Atwell and directed by Saul Dibb. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material