The Duchess dramatizes a portion of the true story of a headstrong young aristocrat whose surname is Spencer. The lady, played by Keira Knightley with full awareness of the charms of a demure head tilt, is famous for her glamorous beauty, her influential fashion sense, and her celebrity friends; the gentleman, played by Ralph Fiennes with exquisite nuance in a compassionate depiction of male inexpressiveness, is rich, powerful, and from a renowned British family. The lady is more adored by those around her than by her husband, a socially awkward older man more at ease with pets than with people; the gentleman remains attached, throughout most of the couple's long, incompatible marriage, to another, more worldly woman (Hayley Atwell), ignoring his wife's distress about the ménage.
If the late Princess of Wales, née Diana Spencer, comes to mind, then the makers of this gossipy, dutifully swanky costume biopic can rest easy. They have accomplished their goal of making the unorthodox life of the late-18th-century noblewoman Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, relevant to a 21st- century audience of moviegoers who cheer for romance even while armed with skepticism and copies of People reminding them how so many "fairy-tale marriages" go bust. (The drama is based on Amanda Foreman's marvelous biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.)
As it happens, Georgiana Spencer Diana's great-great-great-great-aunt married William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, in 1774 when she was 17 and he was 26. It was an era of impossibly tall wigs and tight corsets and the women didn't have it easy either, ba-DUM. But with Knightley in the title role, something interesting happens: The star's sporty, modern-girl attitude, her Vogue-worthy eyebrows, and her athletic build (no matter how impressively those long limbs are encased in complicated gowns of satin and silk) lend an attitude of now-ness to a production that wants to be part historical biopic, part tabloid-relevant. (Director Saul Dibb has a background in documentaries.)
Knightley, now 23, is not a very deep interpreter of her roles (whether in Atonement or the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy), nor is she as hip as Kirsten Dunst and the rest of the in crowd who cavorted in Sofia Coppola's fashion-forward Marie Antoinette with downtown élan. But that hardly matters in The Duchess. Playing a vivacious colt brokered by her savvy mother (Charlotte Rampling) to a very rich suitor whose chief marital demand is the production of a male heir not so easy an assignment, as it turns out Knightley grins or blushes becomingly. She reddens even more erotically when swooning for her own great love, the politician Charles Grey (Mamma Mia!'s Dominic Cooper). And that pink-cheeked simplicity works to the movie's advantage. She's the people's princess.
Anyhow, Georgiana is the least compelling character in this saga certainly as played out by Knightley against the charisma that Atwell and, especially, Fiennes bring to their roles. Dibb, who shares screenwriter credit with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, has a nice eye for vignettes that convey the loneliness that can eat the soul, whether at dinner, in bed, or amid sumptuous displays of pomp and circumstance. (This subtext would come across more effectively had the director trusted in the power of silence, and succumbed less to the undistinguished doodles of Rachel Portman's intrusive musical score.) Atwell, who plays Julia in the new Brideshead Revisited, creates an utterly seductive, independent-minded Lady Elizabeth Foster. ''Bess'' was one of English history's most colorful risk-takers, a divorcée who began as Georgiana's great friend, caused that same friend agony when she became the Duke's mistress, and then stuck around the mansion for more than 25 years beloved by them both.
Fiennes, meanwhile, develops a beautiful, wordless vocabulary of hurt, frustration, sadism, lust, discomfort, arrogance, remorse, and unanalyzed pain for his Duke. He speaks with his body what the script cannot formulate about what it's like to be a man apart. The actor creates particulars of time, space, class, and personality with one crook of a finger, one twist of a wrist. I call that nobility of craft; he's the actors' prince. B
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