Another period piece about a progressive, fashionable, forward-thinking woman constrained by and struggling against the strict mores of her time, director Saul Dibb's The Duchess is a gear-grindingly familiar romantic drama cloaked in sumptuousness. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes and Dominic Cooper, the movie is based on the true story of the Duchess of Devonshire — an “It Girl” of her era, and a direct ancestor to Princess Diana, as the film's theatrical campaign nudgingly reminded viewers — who must face an agonizing choice between responsibility and love.
A characteristically beguiling young noblewoman, Georgiana Spencer (Knightley, suffering some prodigious hairpieces) is handed over for marriage by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) at the age of 17 to the wealthy and influential William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes), the fifth Duke of Devonshire. With the arrangement, Georgiana enters into a lavish world filled with shocking deceptions, decadent scandals and stifling demands of duty. As Duchess of Devonshire, she first indulges her considerable energy in high society, outshining most of the aristocratic men around her with her incredible wit. The empty, endless chatter of the party circuit is not for her, however, and fashion icon Georgiana soon becomes the toast of London as much for her outspokenness as her iconic outfits. A devoted mother and stirring voice for the common man, she become one of the most impassioned political critics in all of 18th century England. Still, all isn't happy at home. Lovers are taken — the dour William beds Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), while Georgiana seeks comfort in the arms of Charles Grey (the aforementioned Cooper), a rising politician — and rigid domestic battle lines are drawn.
From Pride & Prejudice to Atonement, Knightley has a certain predilection for period piece fare, and the unfussy directness that's a staple of almost all of her screen performances may be the film's best attribute. She takes rather shallowly scripted clichés about loneliness and imbues them with undiluted feeling. That said, she and Cooper evidence little chemistry together, and Fiennes — a long way from the two mid-'90s Oscar nominations that gave him his reputation — can skate through stuffy material like this, and does so accordingly. Its connection to the still wildly beloved Princess Diana makes The Duchess more relevant or interesting to those across the pond (and British ex-pats living here, I guess), but the drama within the movie — consternation over Georgiana producing a daughter instead of siring a male heir, and the glass-house, woe-is-me psychological hand-wringing — is all very, very familiar, to an ultimately wearying degree.
Housed in a regular Amray plastic case, The Duchess comes presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, along with English, French and Spanish language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio tracks. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are also available. Kicking off a so-so slate of three EPK-style bonus features is a 22-minute making-of documentary which explores the life of Georgiana, and the era that she came to define. Intercut interviews with cast and crew form the spine of this featurette, but extra footage from the many gorgeous locations that comprise the movie gives American viewers a glimpse of the old-world beauty that wide swatches of the United States just can't match. In the seven-minute "Georgiana In Her Own Words," Amanda Foreman, author of the award-winning book upon which the film is based, sits down with producer Gabrielle Tana at the actual home of Georgiana's family, reviewing various letters, diary entries and artifacts that helped shape the historical landscape of her biography. Running six minutes, the final featurette shines a spotlight on costume designer Michael O’Connor, who talks about creating all of the film's beautiful, extravagant wardrobes. An audio commentary track would have been nice, from either director Dibb (Bullet Boy) or the chatty Foreman, but a clutch of theatrical trailers for other Paramount releases round out this collection. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C (Movie) B- (Disc)