Times were tough for 18th century English ladies. They were essentially chattels. They couldn't inherit property and thereby achieve financial independence or escape the necessity of marriage. They wouldn't get the vote until more than a century later. And, if they were like Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, the fine clothing and palatial homes were little consolation for the indifference and tomcatting of their husbands. Or so we are to think in The Duchess, in which poor little rich girl Georgiana (Keira Knightley) longs for a husband who takes her seriously, and, you know, talks to her once in a while. Instead, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is an incurious dullard who can't keep his pantaloons on around the scullery maids, and whose only interest in his teenage wife is in using her for breeding stock. Her unsympathetic mother (Charlotte Rampling) advises her daughter (as Queen Victoria is alleged to have later told her own daughter) to close her eyes and think of England.
Georgiana gives the Duke children, but not the right sort for his particular needs -- he's interested only in producing a male heir, and is getting pretty desperate about the whole thing. Apparently life is demanding for 18th century English gentlemen too, however ungentlemanly they might be. Georgiana's only solace is that she is the toast of the town, a fashion icon, a woman whom other men fawn over, the people's princess. Remind you of any other sad ladies named Spencer?
The Duchess urges us to feel sorry for Georgiana, while at the same time oohing and aahing at all the grand architecture and lovely frocks. The Duke, though a little too sadistic and unpitying himself to be entirely sympathetic, is, as Fiennes portrays him, an arrogant but sad, lonely figure who appears somewhat aware of his own intellectual shortcomings. He knows that his young wife carries a torch for the more interesting, rabblerousing (and Duchess-arousing) politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). It's tough, however, to feel terribly sorry for a guy who installs his wife's best and only friend (Hayley Atwell) in the family mansion as his live-in mistress (and does even worse to his headstrong but utterly dependent wife). Fiennes just happens to be a much better actor than Knightley, so he's able to work some complexity, nuance and subtext into his character, which makes the Duke more pitiable than he probably looks on paper.
The movie is not otherwise exactly bursting with subtlety or interesting ideas. The Duchess, based on a true story, and more specifically, on Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, conveys some sense of the emotional emptiness and isolation of life at the top. The pitch for this movie was probably something like "It's Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette crossed with Jane Austen, but with more sex, no humor, and fewer beheadings." There are in fact no beheadings in The Duchess, although a few might have livened up the joint a bit. But the French Revolution was years off (and in a different country) as poor Georgiana underwent her many tribulations.
Director Saul Dibb co-wrote the screenplay with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen. The Duchess is a very picturesque film, but it's one that doesn't stray far from the obvious in telling Georgiana's story. A moment of great tragedy for the young Duchess is played out on an isolated, windswept, muddy road -- true to history, perhaps, but how much more interesting it would have been if it had taken place on one of those gorgeous, grassy, sunlit lawns where Georgiana spends her carefree, happy moments. Georgiana's story isn't well-served by the pedestrian treatment it gets in The Duchess. The movie emphasizes surface appearance -- Knightley's striking face, her lavish costumes and towering wigs, and the ornate, marble-licious architecture -- without bothering to dig very much below the surface. This makes the proportions of the story far less than tragic. Unhappy, untidy, and occasionally unusual, but nothing to get terribly worked up about.