Based on the true story of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire and ancestor of Princess Diana, The Duchess features Keira Knightley portraying the titular historical figure and fashion icon who lived a real Anna Karenina-esque life, although long predating the Russian heroine. Beautiful, graceful, clever, and publically adored, the Duchess, nicknamed “G”, is nevertheless trapped in a loveless marriage with the older, rich, and powerful Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). He is a cold and purely practical man who is often unfaithful to his wife although adamant that she produce him an heir. A welcome boon in the form of Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster (Hayley Atwell), who becomes Georgiana’s only female friend, becomes a terrible blow after Bess’s shocking betrayal in becoming the Duke’s mistress (Bess explains that she commits this betrayal in order to get her children back from her own terrible husband; the Duke is the only one powerful enough to help her). Georgiana then takes the future Prime Minister of England, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), as her lover. Well-matched, the two of them share the same liberal views on universal human freedom within the stifling era of the late 1700s. Sadly, their affair places at risk the young politician’s public standing, the wrath of Georgiana’s controlling husband, and, worst of all, the separation of the Duchess from her children. However, this tragic tale ends on a happier note than Tolstoy’s famous novel, with Georgiana eventually coming to terms with her circumstances and reaching some level of peace in her rigid life.
Keira Knightley, as always, reigns supreme in this period drama. She masterfully displays the development of the Duchess from a naïve, teenage bride to a graceful and strong woman who holds her own under constant public scrutiny. Dominic Cooper, with his naturally smouldering glances, strangely exotic features, and perfect eyebrows, is uber dreamy as the idealistic Earl Grey (yes, the tea was named after him). Ralph Fiennes also lends complexity to the antagonistic Duke, who becomes almost pitiable by the end of the film. The lavish costumes with crazy side-bustles and elaborate wigs are wonderful, as are the rest of the little details displaying the life of the British aristocrats, such as the countless liveried servants and sumptuous rooms in the Duke and Duchess’ palatial home of Chatsworth.
The modern idea of celebrity is foreshadowed by the Duchess’ popularity and influence in politics and fashion, evidenced by her public appearances (always drawing huge crowds) and by drawings of her in 18th century newspapers and gossip magazines. Her desire for total freedom never gets fully actualized but her strong will and intelligence is nevertheless admirable. The Duchess is an excellent introduction to a fascinating historical figure. Be sure to check out her biography!
Rating: 4 out of 5 flaming wigs