Amanda Foreman's robust, elegant biography, Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire, receives a cream rinse and a Princess Di job in The Duchess, a Minorpiece Theatre depiction of the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. Georgianna is a cultivated lass with an independent mind when she marries the fabulously wealthy and politically influential William Cavendish, the fifth duke of Devonshire.
But she's also an intensely hopeful 17-year-old, so she's traumatized when she discovers that the duke is a cold cad who sees marriage as the process by which noble folk produce male heirs. He takes his pleasures with other women; he views his wife as someone to be serviced, even attacked. She finds a creative outlet in setting fashion trends and catalyzing political parlays. Then she meets the dashing, pure Whig politician, Charles Grey.
What saves this movie from utter conventionality is its acting. Keira Knightley, as Georgianna, exudes sexuality even though she's pencil-thin. She's an ideal movie actress, and here she's in her prime: If a great director writes with his camera, a great physical performer like Knightley writes with her body, even when it's encased in billowing gowns. She makes Georgianna's hopefulness so ardent that the duke appears to lack perceptiveness and taste as well as sensitivity and passion. Luckily for the movie, Ralph Fiennes as William fills in the blanks, creating a man who's claustrophobic in his own skin and capable of easy affection only with his dogs - until, alas, he takes a hankering for Georgianna's best friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell).
Directed by Saul Dibb from a script by Jeffrey Hatcher (who wrote the underrated Casanova) and Anders Thomas Jensen (who wrote the overrated After the Wedding), the movie achieves coherence only as the account of an 18th-century menage a trois. Bess, who's been separated from her children by her own cruel ex-husband, draws the sympathy of Georgianna. But it's the power and influence of the duke that can help her regain her offspring.
Bess, the most original character, is at ease with her own mixed motives and divided sympathies. In the most erotic scene, she awakens Georgianna's carnal pleasures. Bess caresses her, kisses her and makes her imagine what it would be like to be loved by Charles Grey. (Biographer Foreman does not dismiss the possibility that the two had a lesbian affair.) What goes on between Bess and Georgianna is so much more intriguing than Georgianna's trysts with her statesman-lover, Grey (Dominic Cooper), that you feel sorry for Knightley as well as her character when the movie collapses into boutique soap suds.
The problem isn't the history that the filmmakers leave in, but how much they leave out. Director Dibb can't whip up the democratic ferment of the Whig party, and particularly Grey's wing of it; the duchess' prowess as a campaigner is illustrated rather than dramatized. Whig firebrand Charles Fox as her political mentor and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan as the friend who satirized (and immortalized) her marriage in The School for Scandal fly in and out of the action as if their only purpose is to establish her political and cultural stature, not her wit and skill at private and public manipulation.
What's amazing about Georgianna's life isn't all the heartbreak, but how much merriment and vitality she packed away in spite of it. The Duchess covers too little ground. It lacks the driving fervor that gave rise to the real duchess' drunkenness and gambling, her affairs, her mastery of the salon and the ballroom, her intense male and female friendships, and, yes, her towering hairdos.
(Paramount Vantage) Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell. Directed by Saul Dibb. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material. Time 110 minutes.