October 2, 2008


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The Duchess (PG-13)
Keira Knightley puts on an 18th-century fashion show and throws a little romance-novel drama into the tale of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish in The Duchess, a sudsy biopic about the great-grand-something of Princess Di.

According to Wikipedia, she is also related to Sarah, the Duchess of York. And it says she was a friend of Marie Antoinette. Sadly, there was no E!

True Hollywood Story in 1780s England. This movie seems determined to make up for that hole in the historical record.

Georgiana (Knightley) is more or less the same spunky girl as Knightley’s Elizabeth Benet, though socially and financially much better off. Much to the delight of her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), Georgiana, or “G” as everyone calls her (so very Gossip Girls), has caught the eye of the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), also named William, also sort of a jerk. His main reason for marrying Georgiana seems to be her presumed ability to produce sons and, other than some extremely unromantic bedroom encounters aimed at reaching that goal, he doesn’t show any other real interest in his new bride. In fact, for a guy so keen on son-making, he seems to be spreading himself rather thin with his non-G encounters, a situation that appalls Georgiana. And it appears that he’s been practicing heir-creation for a while, as is evidenced by the Hannah-Montana-fan-aged girl who appears at their estate and whom the Duke tells Georgiana she is now going to raise.

Knightley is good at looking shocked at all this scandal, perfecting wide-eyed horror even before she realizes that the woman she cultivates as a BFF, Bess (Hayley Atwell), has become the Duke’s newest mistress. This, she says in many from-the-diaphragm yelled speeches, is just one mistress too many and it spurs G to start a little boudoir action of her own, with the rising star of the Whig party, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

In addition to all this adultery, there’s also some drinking and gambling, some children-neglecting, some illicit child-producing and a lot of pretty pretty dresses. All you need are the slo-mos with ominous music and foreshadowing voiceovers and you’ve got the very juiciest of celebrity tabloid journalism.

What The Duchess might be missing in all this Scandal! and Bedroom Highjinks! is the actual story of Georgiana Cavendish, who in addition to her unhappy marriage is also known for her political activism in a time when women mostly wore tight corsets and serene smiles and otherwise were told to shuck the heck up. (Though I should point out that this age, in addition to being the age of the even more tragic fashion icon Marie Antionette, was also the age of Abigail Adams, who would probably be perfectly at home with Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama in an Ivy League law library, and the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft. So not all women kept themselves quiet.) A geekier, less bosom-heaving depiction of the political side of Georgiana would have been just as interesting as her romantic shenanigans but, I understand, not quite as stormy and maybe not quite as sellable. Just as Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl both suffered from too much All My Children and not enough John Adams, The Duchess is impressive-looking but feels a little too light on actual substance to be the kind of history-defining biopic I think it wants to be. Performances — Knightley, Fiennes, Rampling — are solid throughout but go in service of a decent historical romance instead of the serious historical drama they seem all geared up for.

Having said that, decent historical romances are few and far between and, hey, what history buff doesn’t want to take the occasional break from grim study with a little snack of lovey-dovey cupcakes and fizzy fashion? If you can accept the idea that not every historical drama has to be historically accurate or focus on issues that are historically significant (and if you like poofy dresses), the historical tabloid, the ye olde Access Hollywood that is The Duchess might suit you just fine. B

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material. Directed by Saul Dibb and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Saul Dibb (from the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman), The Duchess is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Paramount Vantage. It is scheduled to open at the Red River Theatres soon and to spread to wider release on Oct. 10.