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‘The Duchess’

A costume drama cut from the finest cloth, sir

by Giovanni Fazio

I’m not sure if “The Duchess” was as good a film as my enjoyment of it would indicate, but after a mere five minutes of trailers for “Monsters vs. Aliens” and (shudder) “Transformers 2,” I was ready to embrace any film that offered actual dialogue and acting, not head-splitting volume and an endless money-shot of explosions.

Sure, period dramas with princesses and miladies in elaborate frocks and hair that could hold a small flock of birds are essentially the equivalent of a fanboy flick for the female demographic. And, at times, they are similarly empty spectacle (see “Marie Antoinette”) — as fetishistic in their fascination with palaces and privilege as the fanboy films are with their digital effects.

Yet the better costume dramas — and “The Duchess” is certainly one — have that upper-crust razzle, but with deeper elements as well: sexual politics, individual desire vs. society’s need for order and obligation, and poignant reminders of how human nature never really changes.

“The Duchess,” which looks at the unhappy marriage of Georgiana Spencer to the duke of Devonshire in 1774, has all these things and more; namely, a fantastic — even breakthrough — performance by Keira Knightley, who proves here she can do much more than hang on the arm of Orlando Bloom.

The Duchess
Rating
Director Saul Dibb
Run Time 110 minutes
Language English

When it comes to period pieces, I’ll admit to having a soft spot for the 18th century. It might just be due to an abiding love for Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” but say what you will, the 1700s were just totally glam. In “The Duchess,” when Georgiana shows up teetering through a party, a glass about to fall from her inebriated grasp, her striking makeup, towering textured hair, and risque decolletage make her seem like she just walked out of that 1980s New Wave classic “Liquid Sky.” (And kudos to Knightley in her continuing refusal to let Hollywood ad men pump up her decolletage with Photoshop.)

Based on Amanda Foreman’s rollicking, revisionist history of Georgiana — ancestor of one Diana Spencer, better known as Princess Di — “The Duchess” sketches the swath Georgiana cut through society, as debutante, political activist, and object of scandal. In her day, she supported the Whig party in their efforts to expand voting rights, using her fame as “the empress of fashion” (as she was known) to draw crowds to their rallies. Georgiana was notorious for her love of gambling, and her rumored affairs and loveless marriage inspired much comment. (Richard Sheridan’s 1777 comedy for the stage “A School For Scandal” features a certain Lady Teazle, who was likely based on Georgiana’s public image.)

We first meet Georgiana, played with just the right blend of impertinence and grace by Knightley, at a garden party on her family’s estate, where she rather boldly flirts with one of the young men present, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Inside the manor, however, the duke of Devonshire is negotiating with the Spencers to take this 17-year-old’s hand in marriage, despite being much her senior. The girl’s feelings don’t even enter into the equation. The duke needs a male heir and the Spencers want the status and political connections: deal closed.

Of course, the viewer — seeing that the duke is played by Ralph Fiennes, an actor who has become almost synonymous with “troubled” — will have alarm bells going off. And sure enough, it turns out the good duke is more communicative with his hounds than with his pretty young wife, whom he barely acknowledges except to bed her.

Georgiana soon learns that she’s married a serial philanderer, a man who can have a child with one of his servants and then thrust it upon her, saying merely, “You can practice your mothering skills.” When Georgiana finally gives birth — to a baby girl — the duke retreats into a simmering silence. Georgiana, faced with spirit-crushing solitude, throws herself into being a socialite and assisting the Whig party, particularly its promising young star, Mr. Charles Grey. She also befriends Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), inviting her to stay at her home after learning that she’s been beaten and abandoned by her husband. The duke all too readily agrees . . .

What follows is a great deal of anguish and turmoil as Georgiana is attracted to Grey, but can’t seem to get out of her marriage. Even though she must share her husband with many other women, the duke is adamant about keeping her from “embarrassing” him through affairs of her own, and Fiennes is expert at repressing all emotion until it explodes in a jealous rage. Knightley has to carry most of the film on her slender back, and does so admirably, but Fiennes provides quite a foil, the ice to her fire. You can feel him just trying to suck the energy out of her with his silences, while she attempts to provoke his interest through flirtatious banter with other men. A classic recipe for disaster, in other words.

The parallels with Diana are so obvious that director Saul Dibb sees no need to emphasize them. “The Duchess,” like “The Other Boleyn Girl” before it, comes as yet another nail in the coffin of that old “Prince Charming” fantasy. This is far from a downer film, though: Georgiana fights hard for her own piece of happiness, and the hard choice she eventually has to make is one many, many women will recognize.