Bottom Line: Even though for the first 20 minutes, the only thing to marvel at is how the hell Keira Knightley stays upright with that much hair, the Duchess is a respectable effort that is worth the ten bucks to go see it.
Hearing about another period piece starring Keira Knightley was like hearing Lindsay Lohan was back in rehab – boring and unappealing. Yet with The Duchess, Knightley accomplishes something not seen in her other pieces: her character actually evolves.
The Duchess is based on the story of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The film opens with a young G, as she is called, playing around in her backyard as a teenager. Her parents have just decided to marry her off to the aloof Duke of Devonshire, played hilariously by Ralph Fiennes (of Voldemort fame, amongst other things). Her life will never be carefree again.
For the first half an hour, Duchess seems to be just another rehash of the many period pieces that Knightley has been in. Yet slowly, while putting on a brave face through her miserable marriage, G becomes a real person, someone to relate to. The story of her life seems almost too tragic to be true, and yet it is.
Knightley seamlessly transforms from the innocent and naïve girl in the opening credits of the film to a woman tormented by her husband’s infidelities and her unbearable circumstances. Upon meeting Bess, her future best friend, G discloses that she’s afraid she can’t have male children because of two miscarriages she suffered. The moment is brief but incredibly poignant. She cracks a half-smile and moves on. Yet just with that one instance, Knightley takes Georgiana to a tragic but unforgettable level that the teenager romping around in the backyard in the beginning of the film couldn’t even contemplate.
One of the highlights of the movie is the extreme chemistry between G and Charles Grey, played by a smokin’ Dominic Cooper. The sexual tension in the movie could be cut with a knife. Cooper somehow manages to nail down being sexy, sensitive, politically active and smart all at the same time. He also manages to maintain being a decent guy, which in this movie is no small feat.
In one desperate scene, Grey shows up at the Duchess’ house and begs her to marry him, have his children – whether boys or girls, an important point in Georgiana’s life – and leave her husband. He has a breakdown in front of her, wondering why she won’t commit to him. He lays his emotion on the table before her, and is devastated when she refuses him. This is not the same Dominic Cooper from The History Boys or Starter for Ten, that’s for sure.
Hayley Atwell, as Georgiana’s best friend Bess, is a definite standout in the film. Though she doesn’t have as much screen time as the other main characters, any scene she’s in benefits immensely from her presence. Even though Bess betrays G’s trust, in a later scene in a movie we see her stand up for Georgiana with such conviction and strength that it’s hard to imagine that Bess could be so cruel. Making an untrustworthy character seem heroic is a near-impossible feat, but Atwell seems to do it effortlessly.
Atwell also ends up living in the Duke’s house, which is an interesting ménage-a-trois, to say the least. Who knew a woman could so consistently make a household feel awkward? After all, Bess ends up becoming the mistress to the Duke, which Georgiana very well knows about.
Duchess has many weak points, but character development certainly isn’t one of them. The movie spans a period of some 10 years or so, and Georgiana, the Duke, and Charles Grey all manage to somehow mature. Especially pleasing was the fact that each time Georgiana got pregnant, she actually looked pregnant – she even gained some weight after each pregnancy. And with Keira Knightley, that’s pretty damn hard to achieve.
Like most movies in theaters these days, Duchess runs about half an hour too long – no one needs that much detail into how upsettingly awful this loveable woman’s life turned out. However, if you’re going to see a movie over the next couple of weeks, you could do much worse than this. After all, what’s better than watching a grown man like Fiennes make a fool out of himself while Knightley broods in a corner?