Kiera Knightley, the queen of period pieces, once again hits the big screen with The Duchess. The film was first released in the UK in early September, then made it’s debut in North America at the Toronto Film Festival, and finally received a wide release Yesterday. While the film has it’s strong points, there’s not much that you would call ‘remarkable’ in this piece.
Knightley plays Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, an 18th century aristocrat that marries up. She finds herself married to the middle-aged, emotionally distance Duke (played by Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes plays his character with exceptional subtlety, with a quiet humor that thankfully somewhat lightens this overly heavy handed melodrama. Georgiana is miserable in her life, with a husband who might be assumed gay based on the way he acts towards his wife if it weren’t for his sexual proclivities with the palace staff. Georgiana takes up drinking, gambling, and fashion, trying to fill the void left by an unhappy marriage. During this time, she befriends a fellow royal who is also damaged by the abuse of a horrible husband (stupid, evil men is a frequent motif in the film), and the two become the best of friends (so close, in fact, it leads to as intense a lesbian experience that a PG-13 rating will allow). As if by cue, the Duke becomes lovers with G’s (as she’s referred to in the film) friend, jading the one thing she had to call her own. At this point, the film focuses on this love triangle, hence the film’s tagline: There were three people in her marriage.
The film is beautiful to look at. A budget that only stars like Fiennes and Knightley could demand allows the film to be incredibly ornate, with intricate costumes, elaborate scenes, and to be filmed in regal locations. Kiera Knightley proves once again that she has more acting chops then many will admit. This performance can’t help be be recognized, by everyone, as fantastic. One major drawback is the fact that director Saul Dibb chose to focus on the love triangle in Georgiana’s marriage when he could have focused on the much more interesting facets of her real life. She was politically active, one of the most celebrated female aristocrats of her time. She was practically the Sarah Jessica Parker of her day. And while the plot occasionally lends itself to these subjects, just as it gets interesting, the audience is denied. Even though it’s beautiful and the acting is great, there’s nothing exceptional about The Duchess.