I’m a sucker for period drama, so it’s no surprise that I was excited about seeing The Duchess, a big-screen adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire.
It’s also no surprise that reigning period film starlet Kiera Knightley was selected to portray the lovely and controversial “G.” As an Austen aficionado, she disappointed me in Pride and Prejudice, but I was pleasantly surprised with her performance in The Duchess. It’s possible that a solid director, Saul Dibb, and a breathtaking, award-winning set of costumes helped the corseted damsel deliver a performance with a wide emotional range.
Alongside Knightley, there was a solid case of characters to keep the momentum going, although there was rarely a scene without her in it. Fiennes delivers in the convoluted roll of the Duke, Rampling has ambitious mother down to a tee, and Cooper is delicious as politico heartthrob Charles Grey.
As for the story, The Duchess is not a gripping thriller. It’s not as forward thinking as the previews would have us believe; the feministic theme is pretty low key. It’s more “Masterpiece Theatre” than bodice-ripper, and I kind of like it that way, although I imagine the slower pace and historical context will lose the majority of the American audience, hence the mediocre rating.
After the first hour, the story seems to drag, possibly because you start to wonder if the poor Duchess is ever going to catch a break. Major themes include inequality of the sexes, Whig party politics, and what a woman will endure for the sake of her children. The Duchess was a good reminder for me, as a woman, that I’m thankful for the political and social freedoms of today, even though I envy her the pretty clothes.
So, here’s the deal: The Duchess is a sweeping period piece, with a stellar set of costumes, actors who all appear to be on top of their game, and a thoughtful score, but it falls short as a captivating story.