Knightley has an uncommon, even unnerving beauty, and in motion – as a swashbuckler with great gams or Elizabeth Bennet cutting through brush and cutting down Mr. Darcy – she’s a force to be reckoned with. But as an 18th century aristocrat buckling under the weight of society’s strictures and a prototype beehive, she cuts a far less impressive figure (fashion-plate accessories aside). Taken from the bestselling biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
and adapted by three different scriptwriters, including director Dibb and, somewhat bizarrely, Danish wunderkind Anders Thomas Jensen (After the Wedding
, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
), The Duchess
begins with the good-on-paper, bad-in-bed love match between Georgiana and the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes), who regularly finds comfort in the arms of other women. Stung by the betrayal and her own inability to produce a male heir, the Duchess feeds off the love of society instead, becoming a legendary wit and a much admired, much imitated arbiter of taste. (Many have pointed out the superficial similarities between the Duchess and her blood descendant, Princess Diana, something the film wisely leaves well alone.) The Duchess
hits very few wrong notes (save a giggling detour into lesbianism), but it doesn’t hit very many right ones, either. Fiennes could play this kind of cold fish in his sleep, and Knightley never convincingly portrays a woman torn asunder by her contradictory impulses toward maternal duty and lust for an upstart politician (an unremarkable Cooper). Part of the problem is The Duchess
’ refusal to see its heroine as anything but saintly, even when she’s sinning up a storm. Dibb’s well-dressed picture hits all the requisite plot points – a bastard child, a beehive on fire, gambling debts galore – but it’s a curiously inert, workmanlike production: a whole lot of pomp and incircumstance.