The Duchess is another one of those costume dramas where an extremely well-kept woman rattles the bars of her gilded cage. This time, it's Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, who ruled over late-18th-century English life with her wit, her charm, her beauty, her sense of fashion and her gravity-defying hairstyles. Except for the various queens, few women have exerted the kind of influence that Georgiana brought to bear, even in the political realm, where she was an avid supporter of Whig Party reforms. Privately, however, she was a slave, bound by law to an heir-seeking dullard of a husband who found her less interesting than his dogs. How would you feel if you'd been handed over to the richest man in England, only to find out you're a glorified sperm receptacle?
That's a question the late Diana Spencer, Georgiana's great-great-great-great niece, might have liked a shot at answering. The parallels are all there to be drawn, and one suspects that, without them, there wouldn't have been a movie. Still, The Duchess stands on its own as a story about how tightly the world of men tends to squeeze the world of women. When the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes in a relatively charisma-free performance, takes a shine to one of Georgiana's friends, he simply moves the woman in and starts playing house with her. But when Georgiana, played by Keira Knightly in a charisma-rich performance, attempts to do something similar, the Duke threatens to boot her out into the streets and never allow her to see her children again. The most influential woman in England is powerless in her own home.
That's certainly a paradox worth building a movie around, but director Saul Dibb (along with co-scriptwriters Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen) may not have gotten everything out of it he could have. The Duchess feels a little thin in places, and it omits things we might like to have had explained. For instance, how did the Duke land on Georgiana in the first place, especially given that he wasn't attracted to her? And how did Georgiana maneuver her way to the top of British society? What was she up to? In the movie, she accepts her rise as her regal due, and Knightley's celebrated beauty supports the idea that the world would simply collapse at her feet. But we never see the pleasure that Georgiana must have taken in having all eyes on her, the power she must have felt surging through her body.
At 27, Knightley may not have had the life experience to play a woman who is constantly having to adjust her expectations. But the movie seems a little immature as well, wallowing in masochism when it could be taking the good with the bad. Did Georgiana not enjoy the role she carved out for herself in society? She doesn't seem to here. Instead, she's always recovering from the latest blow in her home life, each of them administered by the Duke as if he were disciplining one of the servants. Fiennes had a very difficult task - playing a bore without boring us - and he hasn't been entirely successful. But when you see things from the Duke's perspective, which the movie never quite gets around to doing, you at least realize the immense pressure he was under. Without a male heir, his whole life is a complete, utter failure. With an heir, it's only an utter failure.
The Duchess isn't an utter failure, but it isn't an utter success either. Those who enjoy poofy dresses and puffy shirts, sheep grazing in emerald-green meadows, won't be disappointed, of course. The settings are so opulent they seem downright indecent - shelter porn. And Knightley, as one of the preeminent fashion plates of all time, comes toward us in one tasty dish after another. But there was more to Georgiana Spencer than a woman who tried to crack through the cut-glass ceiling. She wasn't just a gambler, as the movie suggests, she was a gambling addict. She was also an opium addict. And bulimic. Sound familiar? The part about bulimia, anyway? Like a certain tragically beautiful princess, Georgiana bestrode a world that wanted to both put her on a pedestal and stick her in a box. Alas, The Duchess feels more like a box.