The Duchess (12A)



Drama (2008)
110mins US

Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic Cooper, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Simon McBurney
Director: Saul Dibb
Writer(s): Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb
Listings: London | Rest of UK and Ireland

Eighteenth century social butterfly Georgiana Spencer is encouraged by her mother to marry the brutish Duke of Devonshire. The nobleman urgently needs a male heir and Georgiana must carry out her duties as a woman to ensure the continuation of the Duke's proud bloodline. When his wife fails to deliver on her end of the bargain, the Duke takes a mistress, Bess, driving poor Georgiana ever closer to her one true love, Charles Grey, the ambitious protege of Whig Party leader Charles Fox.

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LondonNet Film Review by Jill Hilbrenner
The Duchess

Shared affection and misplaced chemistry spark passive-aggressive seething in The Duchess (Keira Knightley's zillionth period piece), which transports the Diana-Charles mismatch into the 18th century...

Keira Knightley (Georgiana), Hayley Atwell (Bess Foster) in The Duchess. Pathe Production UK and Ireland The glamorous Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) was Britain's original It Girl. Her good looks, forward-thinking fashions and magnetic wit - coupled with the ability to drink any man under the table while winning his money in a game of chance - made the country her personal fan club. But like her direct descendant Princess Diana, the only man less than captivated was her husband. The Duke (Oscar winner Ralph Fiennes) remains nonplussed by her political sway for the dynamic Whig Party and hastily wanders outside his marital bed.

Loyal to her role as an aristocrat but adamant that status doesn't make fidelity negotiable, Georgiana silences her resistance until the ultimate slap-in-the-face betrayal leaves her reeling. Her desire for real love leads her to the pit of England's gossip mill, where she's forced to choose between blood and passion.

Keira Knightley (Georgiana), Ralph Fiennes (The Duke) in The Duchess. Pathe Production UK and Ireland The Duchess is an engaging, if slow-moving, look at social and political manipulation in the 1700s. Tension often shows in pained or spiteful stares (reminiscent of 2003's Girl with a Pearl Earring), which doesn't kick start the pace. But meal scenes make up for the stagnant bits, with the lovers passing snarky one-liners while analysing the flavour of their chef's pigeon. Knightley, having worn her fair share of corsets by now, is beautifully tormented on her road to emotional ruin, flanked by Fiennes as the awkward, harrumphing partner and Hayley Atwell playing her sometimes confidante Lady Bess Foster.

Based on Amanda Foreman's award-winning biography, Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, the film captures a lavish England around the time of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and King George's craziness. The scenery: gorgeous. The drama: debatable. But as for the costumes, bring on the BAFTAs and Oscars.

- Jill Hilbrenner

LondonNet Film Review by Kim Hu
The Duchess

Director Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy) ventures confidently into the realms of lavish costume drama with this adaptation of Amanda Foreman's best-selling biography Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire...

The Duchess. Pathe Production UK and Ireland The Duchess is impeccably tailored, dazzling the eyes with Michael Carlin's meticulous production design, Michael O'Connor's resplendent costumes and Jan Archibald's voluminous, cascading wigs. Director of photography Guyla Pados atones for the sins of Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction by capturing the pomp and pageantry of mid 18th century high society in all its glory, shooting on location in the picturesque surroundings of Somerset House in London and Holkham Hall in Norfolk. It's truly a feast for the senses, although Jeffery Hatcher's screenplay leaves us feeling emotionally undernourished. As history lessons go, this is a tad dry.

The film's heaving bosom is 17-year-old social butterfly Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), whose standing within the fiercely competitive aristocracy will be determined by a marriage contract. Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) encourages her daughter to accept a proposal from the brutish and considerably older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The nobleman urgently requires a male heir and Georgiana will be paid handsomely to carry out her duties as a woman and ensure the continuation of the Duke's proud bloodline. Georgiana quickly discovers that marriage is anything but bliss - the Duke shows more affection to his dogs and is wont to bed the housemaids. When she gives birth to not one but two daughters, his eye wanders and he takes Georgiana's friend Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as his mistress, driving his young wife ever closer to her one true love, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), ambitious protege of Whig Party leader Charles Fox (Simon McBurney). The whiff of potential scandal hangs in the air and Georgiana is forced to sacrifice the man that means everything to her, to maintain the pretense of a happy marriage to the Duke.

The Duchess. Pathe Production UK and Ireland The Duchess waltzes through the period with elan, recreating the giddy social whirl and its key figures such as playwright Richard Sheridan (Aidle McArdle) who joins Fox in observing, "The Duke of Devonshire must be the only man in England not in love with his wife." Fiennes is impressive as a cold, repressed man, constrained by the traditions of his age, revealing the chinks of vulnerability and sadness behind the character's cruel facade. "As a husband, I have fulfilled my obligations. As a wife, you have not," he rages, realizing all too well that his family's future - and his reputation as a man - rests on the birth of a son. Knightley conceals her heroine's emotions a little too well behind the powder and rouge, and Cooper doesn't have sufficient screen time to convincingly establish Grey as the love of Georgiana's life. Consequently, their heartbreaking final sacrifice doesn't tug the heartstrings with the ferocity that it should.

- Kim Hu


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