By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
Lady Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great (or so) aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, but whether that family tie is sufficient reason to dedicate an entire movie to her remains questionable.
Georgiana, who married the fifth Duke of Devonshire, presided over an influential salon, at least according to the well-regarded biography by Amanda Foreman. But director Saul Dibb prefers to ignore any significant contributions the duchess (played by Keira Knightley) may have made to posterity, except her alleged talent for fashion (her designs, however, are largely unremarkable, at least in this movie). There are a few tossed-off lines about Tories and Whigs, but the screenplay focuses on the more scandalous aspects of Georgiana’s married life: raising the illegitimate child of her husband (Ralph Fiennes), carrying on with a prime-minister-to-be and nobly suffering while her husband’s mistress (with whom she has a 10-second dalliance) lives in her house. And you thought Princess Di had it tough.
As scandals go, Georgiana’s are reasonably entertaining if not so shocking as the screenwriters would have us believe. (The threesome bit is new, but what period piece doesn’t feature philandering royalty?) The bigger problem is that while The Duchess is rarely dull — some of the party scenes seem staged to justify the cost of building a set — it has little depth, and only once does the story come close to moving the audience.
Viewers may be forgiven for wondering just how rough Georgiana had it if the worst thing she had to do was allow Ralph Fiennes into her bedchamber once in awhile. Still, the duke is cold and imperious, and he sees Georgiana only as a means of producing an heir. Or maybe he simply prefers the wenches whose bodices spill over, as Georgiana’s does not. Who can say? Angry Georgiana finally rebels, falling for budding politician William Grey (Dominic Cooper, last seen warbling Lay All Your Love On Me in Mamma Mia!) and cavorts around Bath with him until the duke lays down the law.
Fans of period drama will find things to like about The Duchess; it’s not as ludicrous as The Other Boleyn Girl, for instance, and it’s not overly long or ponderous. Knightley and Fiennes give solid performances. But there’s nothing here to show us what a remarkable woman Georgiana was, if indeed she was at all.
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell
Director: Saul Dibb
Screenwriters: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb. Based on the book Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman.
Producers: Michael Kuhn, Gabrielle Tana
A Paramount Vantage release. Running time: 110 minutes. Sexual content, brief nudity, thematic material. Playing at area theaters.