By Natasha Felder
Keira Knightly takes another stab at a period piece playing Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana marries William, Duke of Devonshire hoping to have a loving marriage like her parents. Instead she finds herself married to a man whom has affairs with women and has no real interest in her, other than her responsibility to bear him sons.
There’s nothing special about The Duchess. Director Saul Dibb does his best story-wise to separate The Duchess from Sophia Coppla’s Marie Antoinette, but the two women’s lives are so similar that it’s hard not to make the comparison. Coppla tried to sell her movie to modern day audiences by suggesting that not much has changed in the socialite scene. In that time, royalty was celebrity, now we have Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan. I enjoyed The Duchess more than Marie Antoinette because it didn’t pander to its audience in that way. Having said that, there’s something missing from Duchess. It’s a cold and emotionless film, and it shouldn’t be. I found myself not really caring about this woman. So when she suffers under her husband’s indifference, and make no mistake, she does, I only felt bad for her in a general way. I found myself thinking, “That’s not cool.” when she discovers his first betrayal, instead of feeling moved by her sadness.
I’m afraid this is mostly due to a wooden performance by Keira Knightly. It seems like Knightly has the ability to emote two feelings, haughty superiority and stifled anger. She comes off as unlikable the entire movie. She seemed more like a spoiled little girl than a complex woman. I found it hard to believe that anyone would like her for anything other than her beauty. This is a character who was involved in politics when women were at least a hundred years away from the suffrage movement, she was a fashion icon and heavily involved in the arts. My utter indifference to Georgiana’s plight says a lot about the poor job Knightly did.
Thankfully, Ralph Fiennes gives an interesting and layered performance as William, The Duke of Devonshire. Fiennes could have gone the typical mean husband route; instead he portrays William as a man that doesn’t understand the cruelty of his actions. The Duke truly believes that he’s not doing anything outside of what society and his birthrights allow. He doesn’t love his wife and doesn’t expect her to love him. He wants her to abide by the rules of their society as will he. The one character who was supposed to be cold and emotionless was, but in an entirely involving way. The Duke is analytical and practical which makes him not only a more interesting and dislikable character, but somewhat sympathetic because he just doesn’t understand.
Even with Fiennes’ performance, The Duchess can’t muster enough punch to be anything other than an average film. If you see it, do so for Ralph Fiennes. He really is the only thing worth seeing here. With a blah story and a typical less than stellar performance from Knightly, I’m recommending you wait to rent The Duchess, if you bother to watch it at all.