Georgiana (Keira Knightley), the Duchess of Devonshire, is reported to have been a progressive woman during her lifetime. The personal and the political realms of her life took center stage and the world was seemingly aware of her every move and thought on any and all subjects, again both personal and political. She spoke her mind and heart freely and seemingly without fear of any backlash. It could be argued that a woman like Georgiana would be welcome in today’s personal and political battles played out on such a global stage.
Of course, on a more practical level, a film based on the life of such a forward-thinking individual might have been the perfect forum to practice a little more of what she preached and lived. Saul Dibb’s costume drama The Duchess captures the look and feel of the period exquisitely but lacks the daring to provide greater context for Georgiana’s political activism.
The personal battles she waged against her husband, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), are the focus here, and it should be noted that on this front, she was a warrior engaged in heated trench warfare. The Duke cares only for a male heir and stops at nothing to guarantee his objective is met, including bedding Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), the best friend of his young bride, after Georgiana has produced nothing more than what he and society at the time would consider a gaggle of useless girls.
What’s good for the goose isn’t even open for discussion for the gander until Georgiana makes it impossible to ignore after she strikes up a rather open affair with the politically minded Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) and gives birth to a daughter. Georgiana suffers banishment for a period around the pregnancy and Grey’s family ultimately takes over the care of this lovechild. The Duke’s shame outweighs Georgiana’s even after he finally produces a male heir as a result of forcing himself on her when she debated his own dalliance with Foster, who was by this point living in their home as a third participant in a marriage of convenience.
The bedroom drama has sufficient intrigue and is driven along by fine performances. Knightley, here in full-bodiced glory, brings her striking features and effortless royal bearing along with the pitch-perfect cadences to remix Georgiana for contemporary viewers. And she is ably assisted by Fiennes who digs deeper into the Duke to convey the limits of the times that produce these simple caricatures of men as little more than snide sideshow villains.
In these key personal details, the audience is privy to the narrative of a woman seen as the signature party-girl celebrity of her age tied to an aging stiff who wants what he has been led to believe is his birthright — and that’s quite a feat given a media system lacking our instantaneous digital connectivity. (Who knows if Georgiana would have been able to out- Paris Paris Hilton today or if she might have achieved the status of post-Charles Princess Diana?)
Yet there was supposedly much more to Georgiana. In a New York Times review of Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, Patricia O’Conner cast the party girl as “a patron of both the sciences and the arts, she was an amateur chemist and mineralogist of note, as well as an accomplished musician, poet and novelist who enjoyed poking fun at herself and at the social set that slavishly imitated her.”
The problem with Dibb’s lavish biopic is that beyond an aside or two where Georgiana appears at a rally in support of Grey — who would eventually go on to become prime minister — the film never illustrates her commitment to the public side of life in her times. There is very little substance presented in the movie to cement these claims, which is a shame when audiences would relish the opportunity to reflect upon the parallels of women in politics at this defining moment. Grade: C