Keira Knightley stars in this new period film that keeps a quick pace, doesn’t try to be overly eloquent and pompous and strikes a cord at being kind of a new breed of costume drama that was most recently seen with Marie Antoinette, for a very successful experience.
Georgiana (Knightley) was daughter of a wealthy family who sets her up with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) who is an older and unmarried man who is looking to produce a male error first and foremost with Georgiana. The marriage does not go on like a fairy tale like Georgiana expected and her desires and curiosity are peaked by her close friend Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) who shows her that there is more to marriage then reproduction. I can’t really go into the plot much further, but the film doesn’t really pull any huge twists on your, and projects things well while subtly telling the story as it moves along over the years.
The film is sharply made and almost never drags, which is a great accomplishment for a costume period piece. The film is rarely dull and always looks wonderful, while capturing the look and feel of the time extremely well. The costume work is phenomenal as is the elaborate hair that Keira shows off will drive the ladies crazy I am sure. The story itself is also a nice little piece of history that most people probably are un-aware of and remains entertaining even without being wound in and out of the times of the era, and stands well on its own as just the story of a woman and struggles with love and family.
The acting in the film is also top notch even with the absence of any real stars outside the male and female leads. Keira Knightley does a solid job as the title character and does a very good job of selling us on our conflicting desires towards love and family. She carries such a strong presence in the film and never comes across as to fancy or bawdy, it that is a relief to this reviewer. Ralph Fiennes steals the show though, as he owns every scene he is in, and nails the wealthy and established male mindset of the age. The job of a man in a high position of royalty is to make sure his name carries on and his concerns may be little beyond that with his wife, and while his attitude is poor and mean towards her, he doesn’t necessarily mean too, he just doesn’t know any better. And Fiennes captures that perfectly as his absurdity is hilarious and his manner is frustrating, but his character is ultimately sad to us because he is oblivious as to how he should treat his wife. Hayley Atwell is a relative new comer and she holds her own very well with the two quality actors already listed, but her character gets mixed up in an awkward mix of what she really is to these people, and her character and many things surrounding her and the Duchess come across as a bit unbelievable. Though, like I said, I don’t think that is her fault as much as the handling and complexity of the person in real life. Dominic Cooper also does an admirable job Charles Grey, and while he doesn’t have a lot to work with, he does a fine job.
The Duchess in the end is an entertaining, beautifully shot, acted and crafted piece of cinema. The premise isn’t anything ground breaking or original, but it is definitely a better entry in the genre. Outside a bit of a mishandling of Bess’s character, the film works great from pretty much start to finish, and is almost always engaging. If you are a fan of the costume period drama, this one will not disappoint and there is plenty of humor and a great little story to win over those that might be turned off by the same old period material, as this is a breath of fresh air to the genre.