Duchess, The: Chronicle of Georgiana Spencer, Starring Keira Knightley

In theory, “The Duchess,” centering on Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, could have been the intriguing story of an extraordinary woman who rose to fame and tried to stay true to her passions in a world of protocol, gossip and social rules for which she paid a heavy price. In actuality, however, what unfolds on screen is a tale of trashy nature, more suitable to the small screen (perhaps in a mini-series), which is given a glossy big-screen treatment in the manner of Masterpiece Theater.

Unfortunately, “The Duchess” comes across as a shallow chronicle of a ravishing, glamorous, much adored woman, which cant decide how scandalous and sensationalistic it wants to be. As a result, most of what we get is a superficial coverage of the events, or turning points, in the tumultuous relationship of Georgina and her husband, the Duke.

The movie’s conception as a star vehicle for Ralph Fiennes as the Duke and Keira Knightley as Georgiana Spencer is a mixed blessing. Knightley, in yet another costume piece, following “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.” can’t find the center of her role, perhaps a result of the silly dialogue and misdirection. Taking her role too seriously, she emerges as a foolish, hysterical, fallen woman. In contrast, Ralph Fiennes gives a more detached and modulated performance, as befits the material, rendering the saga’s most convincing turn, not a minor feat considering that he is playing a largely unsympathetic character.

Lack of chemistry between the two stars works up to a point since this is a tale of a modern, open, troubled marriage from the get-go. Even so, it’s hard not to notice the differences between the thespians’ biological age (over 20 years), whereas in reality the difference between the characters’ age was less than a decade. Worse yet, you don’t understand what makes Georgiana run, what motivates her to immerse herself in a passionate affair only to give it up entirely for the sake of her children, when presented with an ultimatum by the Duke. And the film’s also neglects her fate; arguably, the most important information is conveyed in title cards at the end.

World-premiering at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, the film will be first seen theatrically in the U.K on September 5. Distributed in the U.S. on September 19 by Paramount Vantage, “The Duchess” will also receive a showing in the Rome Film Festival in late October.

Commercially speaking, “The Duchess” is not a chick flick in the way that this concept is used today (for films like “Sex and the City,” or even “Mamma Mia!”), but rather an old-fashioned womans picture about repression, sin, suffering and redemption, with strong masochistic notes, even though the filmmakers intent might have been to present one of the first “open” marriages within the British royalty, long before Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, who was a very distant relative of Georgiana (See below).

The scenario is written by Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher (who penned before “Casanova,” also a fluffy movie) and Anders Thomas Jensen (the Danish writer of “After the Wedding”), based on Amanda Foremans award-winning biography “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.” The tale begins with the most volatile period in the Duchess’ life, which began with her mismatched yet life-changing marriage to William Cavendish, the Fifth Duke of Devonshire, in June of 1774, when she was just a nave 17 year-old teenager.

Georgiana soon realizes that her cold, distant, and abusive husband expects her two things, to provide sexual pleasure whenever he wishes to and to bear him a son. The double standard is in full operation: She is expected to overlook his explicit, adulterous affair and not to get upset (or react at all) about a child from one of those affairs living with them

Narrative skips the first, interesting first years of the tumultuous marriage and cuts to six years later, when Georgiana becomes undesirable and even despised wife, having given birth to two girls but failing to produce a male heir.

The book is much more graphic than the film in detailing Georgiana’s determination to be a “player” in the wider affairs of the world, setting out to prove that she could out-gamble, out-drink and outwit the aristocratic men around her. In one, later ball scene, she loses control, when her huge powdered wig catches fire.

There is not much in the picture about the process by which Georgiana helped usher in sweeping changes to England as a leader of the pro-American Whig Party, or the irony that despite a series of abuses, she surpassed her husband in popularity, celebrity status, fashion icon, and real political power.

Instead, this conventional biopic emphasizes how Georgiana is humiliated and haunted by the fact that the only man she can’t seduce or control is her very own husband, the Duke. When she tries to be true to her heart while remaining loyal to her duty, her conduct results in controversies and convoluted liaisons.

Under-populated, the film has two or three characters other that the two leads, and for better or worse, it stays indoors, literally. The mid-section chronicles the formation of a mnage a trios, how Lady Elizabeth Bess Spencer (Hayley Atwell) turns from being the Duchesss best friend to her biggest rival, when the Duke favors her and grows attached to her sons, products of another liaison.

The last reel depicts the Duchess relationship with the abolitionist politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who was her longtime lover. The most melodramatic chapters document Georgiana’s shattering banishment after giving birth to her lovers child.

The estimable Charlotte Rampling shows up in two or three scenes, in the beginning and the end, as the Duchess’s pragmatic mother, the Lady Spencer.

“The Duchess” could have been a much more interesting and poignant story, as it is set in a rapidly changing English society at the time of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the madness of King George (depicted in Nicholas Hytners lovely adaptation, “The Madness of King George,” in 1994, with Helen Mirren as the queen). But neophyte British director Saul Dibb can’t bring to real life his melodrama or his characters, instead settling for a lavish and sumptuous style, reflected in the sets, costumes and particularly the wigs.

“The Duchess” is a picture in which the bedroom features prominently with rape, seduction, torture, screaming and yelling–and the servants eavesdropping behind closed doors–turning the story into a borderline sleazy and trivial melodrama thats utterly forgettable.

The film’s marketing campaign makes a big deal out of the affinity between the two women, how Georgiana Spencer shared a twin destiny of fame and adoration, as well as adultery and controversy, with an ancestor who lived 200 years later, Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales. There are other similarities between the two femmes. Though Georgiana was born in a time of rigid social rules and aristocratic power, she was, like Diana, a vivacious, bright, alluring woman who tried to transcended the constraints of her society, and a series of gossip-sparking affairs, to become a beloved icon, and a woman who, when it was all threatened, revealed remarkable inner strength.


Georgiana – Keira Knightley
The Duke – Ralph Fiennes
Lady Spencer – Charlotte Rampling
Charles Grey – Dominic Cooper
Bess Foster – Hayley Atwell
Charles Fox – Simon McBurney
Richard Sheridan – Aidan McArdle
Gen. Grey – John Shrapnel
Heaton – Alistair Petrie


A Paramount Vantage (in U.S.)/Pathe Distribution (in U.K.) release of a Paramount Vantage (U.S.)/Pathe, BBC Films (U.K.) presentation, in association with Pathe Renn Production and BIM Distribuzione, of a Qwerty Films (U.K.)/Magnolia Mae Films (U.S.) production.
Produced by Gabrielle Tana, Michael Kuhn. Executive producers: Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Christine Langan, David M. Thompson, Carolyn Marks-Blackwood, Amanda Foreman.
Co-producer: Colleen Woodcock, Alexandra Arlango.
Directed by Saul Dibb.
Screenplay, Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb, based on the book “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” by Amanda Foreman.
Camera: Gyula Pados.
Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo.
Music: Rachel Portman.
Production designer: Michael Carlin.
Art director: Karen Wakefield.
Set decorator: Rebecca Alleway.
Ccostume designer: Michael O’Connor.
Sound: Simon Fraser; supervising sound editor, Catherine Hodgson; re-recording mixer, Paul Hamblin.
Special effects supervisor: Mark Holt.
Visual effects supervisor: Charlie Noble.
Visual effects, Double Negative.
Stunt coordinator: Lee Sheward.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 110 Minutes.