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The Duchess (2008)

Peter Mountain/Paramount Vantage

“The Duchess” – a handsome and eloquent costume drama – suffers from a case of genre fatigue. Well-directed and competently acted, filled with sweeping 18th-century estate vistas, large crowd scenes and passionate parlor games, it fits nicely in a niche previously carved out by almost every other entry in the genre. The story – which concerns an arranged marriage and illicit love unfulfilled against the backdrop of a changing Britain – feels completely pedestrian.

Put simply, there is no urgency in director Saul Dibb’s chronicling of the life of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire. His film never articulates why she deserves special consideration above other historical figures. It pays lip service to the broader conclusions to be drawn from her life, which in many ways anticipated that of the modern celebrity, but never viscerally evokes them. As portrayed by Keira Knightley, Georgiana comes across as an ordinary young woman without a dynamic persona; and the movie spends so much time in various bedrooms that it rarely ever shows us her impact outside their walls.

The film opens in 1774 amidst the turmoil underwriting the latter years of Georgian England. The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) desires a male heir and comes to the Spencer estate to seek the hand of Georgiana, then an underage maiden. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) happily agrees, for all the usual reasons: wealth, title etc. Soon enough, the duke whisks Georgiana off to his world of luxurious homes, unending parties and constant schmoozing with bigwigs and politicos. Georgiana has a much easier time adapting to the social requirements of her position than to the physical and emotional ones.

An intriguingly odd relationship lies at the heart of the movie, scripted by Mr. Dibb with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen. At a party, Georgiana befriends Lady Elizabeth Spencer (Hayley Atwell) and invites her to live at their home. Soon, she begins an affair with the duke and, when a betrayed Georgiana insists that she be thrown out, her husband refuses. So begins a shared marriage, a brazen example of bigamy that one would expect might have significant psychological ramifications for all involved.

However, the screenplay never really explores them. The duchess delves fully into an affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the future prime minister, and spends many moments grief stricken with pain. Yet, the trajectory of her marriage to the duke strangely seems like any old unhappy arrangement, when it most assuredly is not. This is weird stuff, especially since Georgiana and Elizabeth retain feelings for each other, but the psychosexual dynamic at play remains persistently subsumed by the conventional surface trappings.

The synopsis in the press notes begins by noting that “long before the concept existed, the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, was the original ‘It girl.’” That may be the case, but you wouldn’t know it based on “The Duchess,” which studiously avoids almost all depictions of her public persona. Sure, she banters spiritedly with some Whig politicians; another character tells us of her trend setting style and she whips up the crowds at several big political rallies. But Mr. Dibb never delves into the sociopolitical climate that might have facilitated her popularity. He never shows us what, exactly, made her an especially beloved figure and the breadth of her celebrity feels pretty underwhelming because of it.

Say what you will about Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” at least it conveyed the title character’s particular charisma, and did so with a style all its own. “The Duchess,” clearly hoping for something similar, instead borrows liberally from better movies. In the process, it ignores most of what made its title character unusual and recycles the same basic costume drama narrative we’ve seen countless times.


Opens on Sept. 19 in New York and on Sept. 5 in Britain.

Directed by Saul Dibb; written by Mr. Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, based on the biography “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” by Amanda Foreman; director of photography, Gyula Pados; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; music by Rachel Portman; production designer, Michael Carlin; produced by Gabrielle Tana and Michael Kuhn; released by Paramount Vantage (United States) and Pathé Distribution (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Keira Knightley (Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire), Ralph Fiennes (the Duke of Devonshire), Charlotte Rampling (Lady Spencer), Dominic Cooper (Earl Grey) and Hayley Atwell (Lady Elizabeth Foster).


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