The nicest thing that can be said about The Duchess is that it meets expectations. Keira Knightley cuts a fine figure as Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire. Ralph Fiennes turns in a nicely understated performance as her husband the Duke, a man who could not be less interested in his wife. The costumes and set design are immaculate and are likely to end up Oscar-nominated. It is, in short, a period drama.
Knightley’s Duchess is a woman ahead of her time, a public figure who realizes that a command of fashion and a knack for hosting parties can translate to political influence and a more rounded life than women of the era were typically allowed. The British actress seems born for the role — she easily embodies both Spencer’s confidence and the charisma (and beauty) that afford her the love of the people. Fiennes is similarly excellent as the Duke, for entirely opposite reasons. Though he’s more than capable of being charming, he instead plays the character as a man who is entirely un-noteworthy. His discomfort with women operating in the public sphere and his predilection for extramarital affairs would make him repugnant if they weren’t so in keeping with his time — he’s not so much a villain as a reminder of just how unorthodox his wife’s views were.
The Duchess’s twist lies in the fact that Georgiana, a direct ancestor of Princess Diana, had a life that in many ways mirrored that of her 20th century counterpart. Both were politically outspoken, both were adored by their subjects but trapped in unhappy marriages, both had affairs that threatened their public reputations. Unfortunately, this boils down in film to the not-so-shocking revelation that wealth doesn’t equal happiness, and that marrying for rank can lead to nasty, loveless arrangements. The same could be said of 2006’s Marie Antoinette, a far less successful film that used a new wave twist to heighten its decadent atmosphere. It was a mess, but the mere fact it tried something different was enough to justify its making. The Duchess is much more enjoyable but much less necessary.