‘The Duchess’ movie review: Keira Knightley in decadent costume drama

A rather uneventful costume melodrama, Saul Dibb’s The Duchess evokes a nice 17th Century feel but fails to evoke much on the dramatic scale, despite giving it the old college try. 

The film won an Oscar for Costume Design, and is admittedly terrific to look at – not just for the lavish costumes and sets, but also Gyula Pados’ lingering, occasionally beautiful cinematography. 

But campy melodrama, complete with occasional histrionics, and a horror-movie soundtrack blend uneasily with the refined, serious tone director Dibb drowns everything else in.

The Duchess takes a look, or rather, a glimpse, at the life of Georgiana Cavendish (played by Keira Knightley), who became Duchess of Devonshire when she married Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) in the late 18th Century. 

A noted beauty and socialite, the Duchess looks the other way at her husband’s infidelities, raising a daughter he sired out of wedlock and giving him three of their own. 

Her inability to give birth to a son causes some marital strife, which is magnified when the Duke begins an affair with Georgina’s friend Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), who continues to live with the two. And the Duchess retains feelings for her childhood friend and true love, future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

And that’s, well, pretty much it for The Duchess, whose life seems rather tame compared to that of Anne Boleyn, her story told recently in the similar, more overwrought The Other Boleyn Girl

A screenplay credited to the director, Jeffrey Hatcher, and Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen mines each detail for melodrama, including a bizarre party scene where an apparently drunk Georgina catches her hair on fire (“Please extinguish the Duchess’ hair,” Fiennes brilliantly deadpans). 

But Dibb and his production crew seem to be going for a more refined Barry Lyndon-like flavor, which doesn’t mix all that well with the script.

Knightley looks fabulous throughout, her fashion changing from scene-to-scene, but seems unable to rise to the emotional task the director asks of her; in a key climatic scene, she inexplicably dons Marty Feldman-esque bug eyes. Fiennes, on the other hand, is terrific in a mannered, almost robotic portrayal of the Duke.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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