The main ambition of this adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s popular biography of Georgiana (pronounced George-ayna), Duchess of Devonshire, is to afford Keira Knightley a chance to parade in a succession of fabbo 18th century frocks, run an impressive gamut of suffering emotions and generally command centre screen. It trims a great deal of fascinating material about an interesting woman (the real-life Duchess was a kleptomaniac, for instance) in order to play out as a story of dutiful sacrifice to emotionless aristocratic tradition compromised by bursts of wild and agonised romance. The tagline ‘there were three people in her marriage’ is clearly supposed to draw out parallels between Georgiana and a later member of the Spencer family handed over in marriage to a cold fish bigshot in order to secure a succession – and Knightley as often seems to be ‘doing’ the late Princess of Wales as coming to grips with a historical figure.
‘The Duke is the only man in England not in love with his wife,’ snipes a wit – though, besides being thin and blonde, the Duchess as shown here doesn’t seem all that fascinating or vivacious (then again, despite acres of newsprint, as far as I’m concerned, neither did her great-great-great-great niece). It doesn’t go as far as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (with which it has many plot parallels) in goosing the past to make force modern resonances, but we get lightning-sketch artists as the equivalents of paparazzi and a brush with the politics of celebrity (and celebrity politics). Teenage G is wed to the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), who needs a son to pass on the fortune and position to but is chilly to his wife (though fond of his dogs) and coldly furious when she presents him with two daughters to go with the one he has already fathered on a dead maid and whom his wife is jolly nicely bringing up as her own. The poor marriage is illustrated by frosty breakfasts at a long table, with stone-faced servants standing around even during rows and tantrums. Into the mix comes Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), battered wife and desperate mother of sons who have been stolen by a nasty husband. She is lively enough to become G’s closest friend, and even shows her how to have an orgasm in the most discreet lesbian scene ever included in a historical romance, but also becomes the Duke’s passionate mistress in order to get her kids back. She even gets her own chair at the breakfast table, exactly half-way between the Devonshires. G gets equal romance-sex time, with Bess’s contrivance, after she has finally popped out a penis-bearing baby (thanks to a spot of marital rape) and enjoys a silly glowing affair in Bath with ambitious politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) – this thread is hard to take seriously after she’s noted he’s just back from France and asked if they’ve had a Revolution yet.
G is brought back to the mansion by her glowering husband, who threatens to wreck Grey’s career so he’ll never be Prime Minister and prevent G mothering his own children – though, with furious hypocrisy, he insists she give up the daughter she has with Grey, even though she has accepted his own bastard child. Fiennes underplays throughout as the stiff, unreachable bully, and the film takes care to give him some points – he is genuinely paternal with Bess’s sons – though it can’t quite explain why he feels such an obligation to be horrid to nicey wifey all the time. For a large-scale historical film, it’s rather underpopulated – G’s whole family is represented by her iron mother (Charlotte Rampling), and there’s never a sense of what the Duchy of Devonshire actually means to the country or even the family beyond an obligation to endure (NB: the couple’s son famously never married or produced an heir, a fact not mentioned here which might add to the futility of the Duke’s dynastic mania).
Atwell has to ping-pong between the leads, supporting them both as Bess manages to be a successful mistress while trying to remain G’s best friend – though, by literally keeping her affair with the Duke behind closed doors (from which emerge rapturous sex sounds that suggest she is able to get more mileage from the old goat than his wife can), it’s hard to see why someone doesn’t shoot her. The Duchess’s society life, including gambling, parties, heavy drinking (resulting in a wig-on-fire incident), trend-setting, inspiring Sheridan (Aidan McArdle) and supporting the Whigs under Charles Fox (Simon McBurney) is covered, but in a fairly cartoony way. As a three-hankie sudser, it delivers over and over – though there’s something grotesque about Knightley’s different-emotion-in-each-scene performance, as if she were stringing together a succession of clips fated for use in awards shows, and nothing here is quite as ravishingly strange, or redolent of the alienness of the past as the frozen marriage scenes in Barry Lyndon which tell the same story in a few tracking shots.