Duchess, The (Denmark/United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Duchess, The Poster

It seems that an inordinate number of movies produced by BBC Films take us back in time to an England That Was, where class structures were as rigid as women's corsets and royalty meant more than a ceremonial title. In many cases, there's a sameness to these movies, in part because the history of the U.K. is punctuated by the actions of repeat offenders - those who, by not learning from history, end up regurgitating it. The Duchess is such a motion picture. It has impeccable production values but feels like a Masterpiece Theater production of a Harlequin romance novel.

It's entirely possible that director Saul Dibb made The Duchess with visions of Oscars dancing in his head - it's that kind of movie. Despite the "prestige" factor and its attendant superior acting and set design, this historical fiction is longer than it needs to be and fails to engage on a visceral level. It's a period piece lover's period piece, and will probably only be appreciated by those who don't mind seeing an overly familiar story re-hashed in a way that could hardly be considered fresh or invigorating. As lovely as it is to look at, I found The Duchess to be not only slow but borderline inert and possessing a dramatic power that makes the similarly-themed The Other Boleyn Girl seem like a powerhouse.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire. Married to the Duke (Ralph Fiennes in a one-dimensional portrayal of glum repression) before the age of 18, Georgiana becomes a favorite daughter of late 18th century England (dubbed "The Empress of Fashion") and uses her popularity to advance the political causes of the Whig party. Behind the scenes, however, things aren't cheerful. Georgiana has presented William with two daughters but not the sought-after son. His patience wearing thin, he takes her by force in an attempt to impregnate her. Meanwhile, he has also cultivated a mistress (Hayley Atwell) under the same roof as Georgiana. Applying the "sauce for a goose" proverb, she begins an affair with rising political star Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but learns that in the man's world of the 1780s, her options are much more limited than her husband's.

The Duchess emphasizes Georgiana's "modern" aspects. She is initially delighted to be paired with the Duke (it is the most advantageous marriage she could hope for), but sours on the match when he proves to be an inexpert lover, a boring conversationalist (he never talks to her), and repeatedly unfaithful. She is an advocate of women's rights, shows more interest in politics than her husband, and even appears at pep rallies to lend her celebrity to the Whig cause. There's something in the movie's subtext about the universality of celebrity. In fact, one element of The Duchess' marketing campaign likens Georgiana to an 18th century Madonna or Paris Hilton. Ultimately, however, as progressive as Georgiana's political views might be, she lives in a time when the laws were made by and for men and, when she tries to emulate the Duke's infidelity, her life is ruined. Georgiana's downfall occurs not because her husband is jealous but because she is not discreet enough and could cause him public embarrassment.

With British films, no matter how derivative the story, it's almost never possible to criticize the acting, and this is no exception. Keira Knightley, who is fast becoming at home in period pieces, gives Georgiana spirit and grace. As the Prime Minister-to-be Charles Gray, Dominic Cooper is perfect leading man material (he also played the boyfriend in the recent Mamma Mia!). Hayley Atwell has what is arguably the most complex role in the film as her character navigates the morally ambiguous waters associated with betraying a friend in order to be reunited with her children. Finally, Ralph Fiennes does what he can with the one-note part of the Duke, but this really isn't the kind of well-developed character that demands a performer of Fiennes' ability. To a large part, his talent is wasted here.

Dibb does what British directors always seem to do with unimpeachable expertise: recreate a lost era. His actors are top-notch, the set design is error-free, and the movie in general feels like it was lensed via a time machine. If only it was a little more energetic and interesting… Maybe it's just that the story feels so familiar. It's not just the lack of originality, but the lack of presenting old themes and elements in ways that at least trick the viewer into thinking they're fresh. This is Masterpiece recycled. Anyone largely unfamiliar with British period pieces will be duly impressed, but there are few moments during the course of The Duchess when I didn't feel as if I was watching a re-run. That might be okay for TV viewing, but it's less-than-desirable in a movie theater.

Duchess, The (Denmark/United Kingdom/United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1