TORONTO — Keira Knightley is happy to reign as Hollywood’s current queen of the costume drama. She just wishes that playing dress-up in period outfits could be a bit more comfortable.
Knightley delivers her latest historical pageant with “The Duchess,” a saga of the 18th century equivalent of a tabloid celebrity who happens to be an ancestor of Princess Diana.
The story of Georgiana Spencer holds notable parallels to the tragedy of Diana. Both were adored by the public. Both saw their fairy-tale romances with men at the apex of Britain’s aristocracy devolve into loveless marriages. Both sought escape and diversion with social causes, high-profile friendships and dalliances that hurtled them into the center of scandals.
Knightley knew nothing of the blood relation between Georgiana and Diana when she first read the screenplay for “The Duchess,” based on the biography “Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire.” The film opens Friday.
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Just 11 years old when Diana died and coming from a family immersed in political theater, not celebrity gossip, Knightley preferred to think of the connection as nothing more than a footnote.
“It absolutely wasn’t what I was thinking as far as this film went,” Knightley, 23, said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Duchess” premiered. “I thought it was an interesting piece of trivia that they were related. ...
“Probably with this character, you could draw parallels to very many different famous women throughout the ages. You could kind of do a Marilyn Monroe thing. In a stretch, you could say Josephine Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette. But I kind of think she’s interesting enough that you don’t need to draw parallels, actually. If I wanted to make a Diana biography, I’d make a Diana biography. This is a Georgiana biography.”
At ease in period stories
While Knightley has done contemporary stories and hopes to do more, she has made a specialty of historical pageants with films such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters, “Atonement,” “Silk,” “King Arthur” and “Pride & Prejudice,” which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
“The Duchess” co-star Ralph Fiennes said Knightley imbues historical characters with a naturalism that makes them seem real and immediate.
“I don’t think there’s a way to play a period film. I think people had the same bodily functions then as they did now. People got drunk, went to the bathroom, ate too much garlic, whatever,” Fiennes said.
With Knightley, “it has to do with her inner spirit, really, her intelligence,” Fiennes said. “Why she works is that she just loves that character. She’s completely comfortable playing it. You could take all the clothes away, and it has to do with her belief in the character.”
Saul Dibb, who directed “The Duchess,” said Knightley possesses many of the qualities that made Georgiana such a star on the 18th-century social scene.
“She is kind of a similar force of nature, in a way. She does have this incredible spirit and passion and charisma. She’s incredibly quick-thinking and way ahead of her years,” Dibb said.
Knightley said she likes the fantasy aspect of drama set in the past. It helps put some distance between herself and the characters she plays.
The old-time trappings — constricting corsets and suffocating gowns — were a hardship, however.
“Positively awful. They were made in very much the same way they were made back then,” Knightley said. “I think probably their corsets would have been tighter. Because I said, ‘If I’ve got to stand up for 16 hours a day making a film, then can I please be able to breathe a little bit? It would be really helpful.”’
“It’s not really a surprise we were known as the weaker sex, because you literally cannot get a breath. So it’s sort of, as soon as you start getting emotional, if you’re doing an emotional scene, you can’t calm down. You can’t literally draw a breath to try and center yourself again,” she said. “It’s no wonder they were sort of fainting all over the place.”
Story of an unhappy marriage
Georgiana Spencer was 17 when her parents arranged a dream marriage to one of the most powerful men in the British Empire, the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes).
The duke was the prince of cold fish, interested in his beautiful, accomplished bride only for one thing: to produce a male heir. While the duke sleeps around with any other women he desires, he grows more and more impatient as Georgiana delivers two baby girls and miscarries his prospective sons.
Georgiana finds solace in her status as Britain’s fashion goddess and as a political operative, backing progressive candidates including future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a childhood friend who becomes the love of her life in a scandal that threatens to destroy her.
Knightley figures Georgiana made such a show out of her public appearances because her home life was so unhappy.
“She needed attention because the marriage is so not working. She is a complete failure within it because the one thing she was meant to do was get married and produce an heir, and it’s the one thing she can’t do,” Knightley said. “Because of that, you kind of go out and try to prove that everybody else loves you. Nobody else minds that you’re this failure, apart from every single time you come home, you have to face it.”
Inspired by her parents
Knightley grew up around theater people, her father an actor and her mother a playwright, both involved in political theater.
“It was an amazingly powerful thing to see these people who really believed in the place of art, the place of theater in particular, in making a stand against something,” Knightley said. “It was incredibly powerful, so I think it’s always been what I wanted to do.”
Knightley hasn’t settled on her next film, but a couple of potential projects that interest her would extend her reign as costume-drama queen. One is playing Cordelia in a big-screen version of “King Lear,” and the other is a remake of “My Fair Lady,” with Knightley taking on the Audrey Hepburn role as a flower girl transformed by a linguist into the belle of British society.
Neither is definite, but Knightley would be game for both, even if it meant subjecting herself to inevitable comparisons with Hepburn.
“Any role is terrifying,” Knightley said. “This would be particularly terrifying because it’s a remake. It would be particularly terrifying because it’s a musical. But I think you have to look failure in the face and admit that it’s going to happen, and that’s not a reason not to try something.”
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