If it comes as something of a shock to you that women — even rich, attractive, aristocratic women — weren’t treated particularly well in the 18th century, then you’re the perfect audience for “The Duchess,” based on the true story of Georgiana Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana.
Should British gender inequality in the era of the American revolution not come as news, however, you’re left with hat porn and an interesting performance by Ralph Fiennes.
Keira Knightley stars as Georgiana who, as a young maiden, is married off to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes), a humorless peer of the realm whose one and only interest in marriage is the conception of a male heir. He is cold and sexually awkward towards her, particularly after she bears him two daughters. (The Duke also expects “G.” to raise a third girl, the product of his tryst with a maid.)
As time passes, G. — who, like her famous descendent, became nationally famous as a fashion plate — befriends Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) and enters her confidence. The Duke, however, takes advantage of Elizabeth’s need of his powerful influence (her own husband has blocked her from seeing their children) and coerces her into his bed. G., for her part, becomes reacquainted with her childhood beau Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) but finds out the hard way that society does not entitle her to the extramarital privileges afforded her husband.
In the hands of a filmmaker with an actual point of view — Sally Potter, say, or Mike Leigh — this could be a potentially inflammatory tale. But with British TV vet Saul Dibb (“The Line of Beauty”) at the helm, it’s just a story about a woman who makes one mistake after another.
There’s never a sense that G. ever learns how to play the game — her liaisons with Charles are ridiculously indiscreet — or that she has any sense of sacrifice. When she gives up her affair, it’s not because their indiscretions would derail the reform-minded Charles’ efforts to be prime minister; she just wants to prevent the Duke from separating her from her children.
Moments that might have had some impact are glossed over or ignored entirely — G. refuses to give up her affair with Charles, but then we see her return to the Duke, with no conversation about what made her change her mind or how it impacted her — while pointless establishing shots of castles and footage of people walking down hallways seemingly go on for ages.
It’s appropriate that artists are constantly sketching the fashionable Duchess, since Knighley’s performance suggests a woman who is constantly posing for still-lifes. But what’s good for a painter doesn’t necessarily translate to the moving image. It’s never a good sign when a thespian is out-acted by her wigs.
It also doesn’t help that Knightley’s playing a woman who was selected for marriage based on her potential fecundity; the actor’s own body is nothing if not 21st century supermodel skinny. One longs for a voluptuous Marisa Berenson, who knew how to fill a corset in “Barry Lyndon.” Cooper, on the heels of the dreadful “Mamma Mia!” once again reveals himself to be one of the less interesting art-house beefcakes produced by the British Isles in recent memory.
Fiennes, thankfully, makes the Duke a fascinating creation, never overplaying the villainy while always getting the character’s social awkwardness just right. His attempts to be civil or even generous to his wife play so conversationally clumsy that it’s like watching a powdered-wig version of “The Office.” And those scenes are the best that “The Duchess,” for all its towering headpieces and grand ballrooms, has to offer.