The Duchess has been promoted to draw the connection between Georgiana Spencer, here played by Keira Knightley, and the more recent British royal family history concerning the late Princess Diana, who happens to be a descendent of Georgiana. It's an emotionally charged drama that just isn't as involving as it intends to be, perhaps more wearying than entertaining.
This true 18th century story, set early on in 1774, has the teenage Georgiana being put into an arranged marriage by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling). The betrothed happens to be the very opulent Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes of In Bruges).
The script, co-written by director Saul Dibb, notes the open marriage of the two as Georgiana tries to produce an heir. After having two daughters, the Duke begins a liason with Bess (Hayley Atwell, notable in the recent Brideshead Revisited), Georgiana's dear friend, who lives in their luxuriant domicile. Complications ensue as Georgiana becomes involved with the man (Dominic Cooper) once close to her in youth, now on a political path to Britain's Prime Minister.
This period piece swirls with aristocratic foreboding that the characters use for some vivid, if heated conversations. The emotional underpinnings and needling tone definitely evokes memories of Princess Charles and Princess Diana, especially when it comes to the media and their modus operandi. Though, it must be said, not with the vitality of the New Age-y Marie Antoinette.
Knightley, who's been in some wonderful period movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement evinces an extroverted, challenging woman, perhaps too pungent and bright for her own good, as her fashions dictate much. The performance turns too mannered when situations become more dour and her chemistry with Fiennes is hardly solid. Maybe that's the intent, though Fiennes delivers something honestly powerful from the strife underneath a haughty, formidable manifestation of the Duke's environment.
In this increasingly wrenching opulence, the proceedings have a tendency to get overwrought, as Georgiana frightfully understands the limitations of the life and soul she wants to exude. She definitely has some difficult issues to work out that isn't as ingratiating for the viewer who may be left in a similar uncomfortable state.
But, with some wry interludes The Duchess bristles as a tart, lavishly mounted "Masterpiece Theatre" cinema, not as a poignant, conflicted romantic tale even with decent support by Atwell's unfortunate mistress. It may not be a steady course for a ambitious Knightley and a mesmerizing Fiennes in this distinctive look at the genteel rich and famous with much to admire when it comes to designs and costumes filled with wigs and corsets.