- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Vantage
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
nyone who’s ever seen an English period drama knows exactly how “The Duchess” is going to play out, but director Saul Dibb doesn’t seem to mind. He's far more concerned with showcasing the vast array of extravagant hats and dresses that star Keira Knightley struts around in over the course of the movie, and though the actress makes them look even better wearing them, there’s something to be said for Dibb’s decision to literally choose style over substance. It’s not that the movie doesn’t have anything to say, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.
If there’s anything at all original about this tale, it’s that when 17-year-old Georgina Cavendish (Knightley) is informed about her arranged marriage to the much older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), she’s actually happy about it. Of course, that sentiment doesn’t last very long when she discovers that all the Duke cares about is a male heir – so much so that apart from his intimate moments with Georgina and limited appearances at social gatherings, the Duke is rarely seen or heard from by anyone. But when Georgina finds her own slice of happiness in a secret affair with Parliament member Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the Duke presents an ultimatum: forget about Grey and return home to serve as a loyal mother and wife, or run away with the young politico and surrender the right to see her children.
There’s a whole another subplot involving Georgina’s friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) – whom the Duke beds when, two daughters and two stillborn sons later, he still doesn’t have a male heir – but it’s mostly just there to provide more drama to the proceedings. The addition of Atwell’s character is appreciated, since the Duke’s robotic behavior doesn’t provide very much room for interaction between him and Georgina, but it also makes the movie longer, which, by the hour mark, really begins to drag. Knightley’s ravishing performance certainly helps make the time go by, but compared to her roles in Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” she’s hardly delivering anything worthy of award consideration. Period pieces may be Knightley’s bread and butter, but with her chances of winning an Oscar for one dwindling, isn’t it time she plied her trade in something a little more modern?
If there’s one thing that does set apart “The Duchess” from all of the other films in the genre, it’s that it doesn’t shy away from the humor of the Duke’s one-track mind. Maybe it wasn’t intended to be funny, but when Georgina goes into labor in the middle of a social event, screaming and writhing in pain, and all the Duke can think about is the impending announcement of his successor (“Do you hear that? My wife is in labor. I think this calls for a toast.”), well, you really can’t help but chuckle. There are a few more instances of this scattered throughout the otherwise uneventful 110 minutes, and it’s the only time Ralph Fiennes ever shows any sign of life in his role as the Duke. The same can probably be said of the film itself, because even though “The Duchess” looks incredible with its fancy costumes and beautiful set dressings, it's no more interesting than the typical period piece.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The costumes in “The Duchess” are so prominent that it’s no wonder they play a big part in the Blu-Rat special features, but between their mention in the making-of featurette “How Far She Went” and the five-minute “Costume Diary,” it would have been nice if they also included a photo gallery of concept art. The only other extra you’ll find is a short featurette about Georgina’s real-life letters, but if you liked the film, you’ll probably enjoy this modest collection of bonus material as well.