The Duchess Movie Review

Movie Review by Tasha Robinson

Keira Knightley as Georgiana in 'The Duchess'
Keira Knightley as Georgiana in "The Duchess"

From the opening scenes of "The Duchess," it's clear that 18th-century aristocrat Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) is in for a jarring disappointment of a marriage.

When her mother informs her that William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, wants to wed her, Georgiana exults, "He loves me? He's only met me twice!" Already, she's established that her expectations are naively romantic; clearly, she doesn't yet understand anything about arranged marriages or the kind of lush, lovelorn costume dramas that "The Duchess" exemplifies.

She learns soon enough. "The Duchess" dramatizes Amanda Foreman's popular biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a cultishly adored (and sometimes loathed) celebrity of her age, known for her outspoken politics as much as her influence over British fashions. (She was also known for drinking, drugging and gambling, which the movie largely omits.)

Like her descendant, Diana Spencer, Georgiana was constantly in the public eye, and she used her popularity with the people to advance personal causes, particularly her support of the Whigs and her favored candidate, Charles Grey. But while Georgiana had an unusual level of societal clout for a woman of her day, her control didn't extend to her own home, where her powerful husband was carrying on a decades-long affair with live-in lover Lady Elizabeth Foster.

The opening scenes that establish Georgiana's foolish ideals are also an early cue of how "The Duchess" operates, by focusing narrowly on her emotions without offering any meaningful context from the people around her. Neither her cool, proper mother (Charlotte Rampling, impeccable as ever) nor her aloof husband (Ralph Fiennes) bothers explaining that William's "love" consists entirely of a monomaniacal desire for an heir. As time goes on and William barely speaks to his new wife, she reacts first with bruised neediness, then by taking up causes, from Whig public relations to protecting Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), whose husband beats her and denies her access to her children. Then William and Bess launch their affair, leaving Georgiana betrayed many times over -- in one swoop, she loses her only companion and the hope of earning her husband's affection. Worse yet, she knows she was responsible for bringing them together.

But while the film spends a great deal of time with her angst and desperation, over uncomfortable meals with Bess and William or brave-faced public appearances, it never scratches her surface, much less delves into the lives of those around her. William's feelings for Bess are never explored. Director and co-writer Saul Dibb never finds anything lively or significant in Georgiana's corresponding relationship with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), which seems less like a star-crossed love than an idle distraction. Too often, there's nothing lively at all; between moments of drama, the participants often pose rigidly alone in vast, beautifully decorated rooms.

Maybe they know exactly how lovely they look in those poses. "The Duchess" is a beautifully crafted period piece, a brocade-and-marble wonder that rivals such recent films as "Marie Antoinette" and "The Other Boleyn Girl" for sheer lushness. But like "Marie Antoinette," it's disturbingly shallow, focused so tightly on one woman's feelings of repression and loneliness that it lacks any perspective on their causes. And like "Boleyn Girl," it reduces vast historical events to a case of two women squabbling over a not terribly interesting man.

Taken in isolation from the unsatisfying story, the performances are powerful -- Knightley's vivacious, wounded romantic does a great deal to carry the film on sheer personality, while Fiennes is a subtle master at projecting banked menace through his seeming detached ennui. When he finally proves how dangerous he can be when provoked, it's shocking but not surprising. But that particular wake-up call is one of the few truly intense moments in a story that follows history without understanding it, and wallows in pain without comprehending it.

Review: 2.5 out of 4 Stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material).

Running time: 1:49.

Starring: Keira Knightley (Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire); Ralph Fiennes (William, Duke of Devonshire); Hayley Atwell (Bess Foster); Charlotte Rampling (Lady Spencer).

Directed by Saul Dibb; written by Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, from the book by Amanda Foreman; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; photographed by Gyula Pados; music by Rachel Portman; production design by Michael Carlin; produced by Gabrielle Tana and Michael Kuhn. A Paramount Vantage release.


About the Movie "The Duchess"

"The Duchess" chronicles the life of 18th century aristrocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an ancestor of Princess Diana.

Long before the concept existed, the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY), was the original "It Girl." Like her direct ancestor Princess Diana, she was ravishing, glamorous and adored by an entire country. Determined to be a player in the wider affairs of the world, she proved that she could out-gamble, out-drink and outwit most of the aristocratic men who surrounded her. She helped usher in sweeping changes to England as a leader of the forward-thinking Whig Party. But even as her power and popularity grew, she was haunted by the fact that the only man in England she seemingly could not seduce was her very own husband, the Duke (RALPH FIENNES). And when she tried to find her own way to be true to her heart and loyal to her duty, the resulting controversies and convoluted liaisons would leave all of London talking.

THE DUCHESS is the story of an extraordinary woman who rose to fame by staying true to her passions in a world of protocol, gossip and social rules – and paid the price.

Academy Award nominee Knightley and Academy Award winner Fiennes head an international cast that also includes Dominic Cooper (THE HISTORY BOYS) as the abolitionist Charles Grey, the Duchess's favorite lover; Haley Atwell (CASSANDRA'S DREAM) as the Duchess's alluring best friend and rival, Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Spencer; and Charlotte Rampling (SWIMMING POOL) as the Duchess's mother, the Lady Spencer.

Rising UK director Saul Dibb (BULLET BOY, THE LINE OF BEAUTY) brings to life a vibrantly lavish, yet rapidly changing England in the time of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the madness of King George. The film is written by Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher (CASANOVA) and Anders Thomas Jensen (AFTER THE WEDDING) based on the award-winning biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. The producers are Gabrielle Tana and Michael Kuhn. The executive producer is Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Christine Langan, David M. Thompsonm Carolyn Marks Blackwood and Amanda Foreman.

About the Cast "The Duchess"

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY - Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

At just 21 years of age Keira Knightley confirmed her status as a rising star with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress for her acclaimed performance as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright's PRIDE & PREJUDICE. More recently she was nominated for a Golden Globe and received a BAFTA nomination for her role in the critically acclaimed ATONEMENT, directed by Joe Wright from the novel by Ian McEwan.

Knightley first made headlines in Gurinder Chadha's hit, BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, for which she won the London Critics Circle Award for British Newcomer of the Year. She was then selected by director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to star opposite Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush in the 2003 worldwide blockbuster PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL which was followed with the international box office smash hits: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END.

Knightley's diverse range of credits include Tony Scott's action drama DOMINO, Antoine Fuqua and Jerry Bruckheimer's KING ARTHUR, John Maybury's thriller THE JACKET opposite Adrien Brody, and as part of the impressive ensemble cast in Richard Curtis' LOVE ACTUALLY with Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson amongst others.

Making her professional acting debut at the age of six on British television in "Royal Celebration," some of Knightley's early credits include "A Village Affair" and "Innocent Lies" as well as performances in the TV series "The Bill" and the TV films "Treasure Seekers," "Coming Home" and Walt Disney's "Princess of Thieves." Knightley's mini-series credits include "Oliver Twist" and the adaptation of Boris Pasternak's classic novel "Doctor Zhivago." Her other feature film credits include STAR WARS: EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE, THE HOLE, PURE and more recently she was seen in the adaptation of Alessandro Baricco's best-selling novel SILK for director François Girard, co-starring with Michael Pitt.

Knightley can currently be seen in THE EDGE OF LOVE alongside Cillian Murphy, Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys in which she takes the role of Vera Phillips. Directed by John Maybury, the film is based on the early life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

In addition to her acting roles, Knightley was recently chosen to be the face of Coco Mademoiselle for Chanel. This occasion was marked by her third collaboration with Joe Wright, as writer and director of her debut commercial for the brand.

RALPH FIENNES - The Duke of Devonshire

Fiennes was born in 1962 in Suffolk, the first of six children. His father, Mark Fiennes, was a photographer and his mother was the novelist, painter and travel writer, Jini Fiennes.

Following a foundation course at Chelsea School of Art in 1981, Fiennes soon discovered his real desire was to act. He auditioned and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (R.A.D.A) from where he graduated in 1985. That summer he appeared at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park where he appeared in "Twelfth Night," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Ring Round the Moon."

Following seasons at the Theatre Clwyd, the Oldham Coliseum and the Open Air Theatre again, Fiennes became part of Michael Rudman's company at the National Theatre in 1987. In 1988 he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company where he gave notable and critically acclaimed performances during two seasons including Henry VI, Troilus, Edmund in "King Lear" and Berowne in "Love's Labour's Lost".

In 1991 Fiennes landed his first television appearance in a small but telling role in the award-winning Prime Suspect and two leading screen roles in which he would take on the challenge of following two very famous pairs of footsteps. Cast by noted talent spotter David Puttnam as T.E. Lawrence in the two-hour film A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia, Fiennes then took on the leading role of Heathcliff in Paramount's dark version of Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

After Wuthering Heights Fiennes starred in Peter Greenaway's THE BABY MACON, released in the UK in August 1993 and took the lead role in the BBC-2 drama The Cormorant, broadcast in February 1993.

Steven Spielberg was so impressed by his performance in WUTHERING HEIGHTS that he cast him as the sinister Nazi, Amon Goeth, in SCHINDLER'S LIST, opposite Liam Neeson.

In December 1993, SCHINDLER'S LIST opened in the US to huge acclaim with Fiennes' chilling performance singled out by many critics. The same month he won the New York Film Critics' Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film. He also won the Boston and Chicago Film Critics' Awards, the National Society of Film Critics' Award, the London Film Critics' Award as Best British Actor of 1994 and Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. In April 1994 he was awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.

QUIZ SHOW opened in the US at the end of 1994 to universal acclaim, followed by a sell-out production of "Hamlet" by Jonathan Kent for the Almeida Theatre Company at the Hackney Empire which became the theatrical event of the year. The production moved on to Broadway and in June 1995 Fiennes won the coveted Tony award for his performance.

He then starred in the Academy Award -winning THE ENGLISH PATIENT directed by Anthony Minghella from the Booker prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje for which he was nominated for an Academy Award , a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as Best Actor.

He recorded "Man and Superman" for BBC Radio 3 before starting work on Gillian Armstrong's film of OSCAR AND LUCINDA, based on Peter Carey's novel. In the film, which was shot on location in the UK and Australia, he plays Oscar.

In February 1997 he returned to the theatre in Jonathan Kent's acclaimed production of "Ivanov" at the Almeida Theatre in London. The company also took the play to Moscow.

Following "Ivanov," Fiennes starred as the quintessential Englishman, John Steed, in THE AVENGERS. He then starred in ONEGIN, a film based on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin which was filmed in Russia and the UK, on which he also served as Executive Producer. Martha Fiennes directed and Liv Tyler was his co-star. He followed this with Istvan Szabo's SUNSHINE, in which he played three generations of one family and Neil Jordan's THE END OF THE AFFAIR.

During 2000, Fiennes appeared triumphantly on the London stage in the title roles of "Richard II" and "Coriolanus" for the Almeida Theatre. The plays also transferred to New York and Tokyo.

In 2002, he triumphed in a guest cameo role in Kenneth Branagh's hilarious West End production of "The Play What I Wrote."

In 2001/2 he starred in David Cronenberg's film SPIDER, Brett Ratner's RED DRAGON, and Neil Jordan's THE GOOD THIEF. Fiennes also starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in MAID IN MANHATTAN.

In December 2002 he opened at the Royal National Theatre in a new play by Christopher Hampton, "The Talking Cure" in which he played Carl Jung, directed by Howard Davies. In 2003 he starred in Ibsen's "Brand" for director Adrian Noble at the RSC and the Haymarket.

In 2004 he filmed THE CHUMSCRUBBER in Los Angeles and THE CONSTANT GARDENER for director Fernando Mereilles, based on the John Le Carré novel. Also in 2004 he played a cameo role in Martha Fiennes' CHROMOPHOBIA with Kristin Scott Thomas and starred with Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson in Merchant/Ivory's THE WHITE COUNTESS. In early 2005 he took on the role of the supremely evil Lord Voldemort in HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE for director Mike Newell and the role of a disaffected prison guard in the film LAND OF THE BLIND with Donald Sutherland. 2005 also saw the release of DreamWorks' feature-length Wallace and Gromit animation in which Fiennes gives voice to the dastardly local squire, Victor Quartermaine.

In the spring of 2005 he played Mark Anthony in Deborah Warner's sell-out production of "Julius Caesar" and returned to the theatre in early 2006 at the Gate Theatre, Dublin and then on Broadway in a hugely acclaimed performance in the title role of Brian Friel's "Faith Healer."

In the autumn of 2005 he starred with Susan Sarandon in Bernard and Doris about the relationship between the heiress Doris Duke and her butler Bernard, directed by Bob Balaban.

He reprised his role as Lord Voldemort in HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and made an indelible contribution as a vicious underworld boss in Martin McDonagh's IN BRUGES which opened the Sundance Film Festival in January.

In March he opened in the new Yasmina Reza play, "The God of Carnage," in London's West End. He will next be seen in Stephen Daldry's THE READER with Kate Winslet.


Charlotte Rampling's first screen role was uncredited as a water skier in Richard Lester's film THE KNACK…AND HOW TO GET IT in 1965, which was followed a year later by the role of Meredith in the film GEORGY GIRL. After this her acting career blossomed in Italian and French cinema.

Rampling has often performed controversial roles. In 1969, in Luchino Visconti's THE DAMNED, she played a young wife sent to a concentration camp, co-starring with Dirk Bogarde. In 1986, she took on the role of a woman involved in a human-primate love triangle in Nagisha Oshima's MAX, MON AMOUR. In 1974's THE NIGHT PORTER she portrayed a former concentration camp inmate entangled in a sado-masochistic relationship with her former guard, played by Bogarde. In 2005 Rampling starred in Laurent Cantet's HEADING SOUTH (VERS LE SUD), a film about female sexual tourism.

Rampling gained recognition from American audiences in 1975's detective story FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and later with Woody Allen's STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) and particularly in THE VERDICT, an acclaimed drama directed by Sidney Lumet that starred Paul Newman. She has collaborated with Francois Ozon on several films: UNDER THE SANDS, SWIMMING POOL and ANGEL. Her recent credits include: I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD, directed by Mike Hodges; LEMMING, directed by Dominik Moll, BASIC INSTINCT 2, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and the forthcoming BABYLON A.D., directed by Matthieu Kassovitz.


Dominic Cooper trained at LAMDA. He originated the role of Dakin in Nicholas Hytner's award-winning National Theatre production of "The History Boys," written by Alan Bennett. He reprised his role in the regional and international tours of the play and on Broadway and he also played the role in the film version, directed by Hytner.

Other theatre credits include Will in "His Dark Materials" and "Mother Molly's Clap House" at the National Theatre, the Caryl Churchill Events at the Royal Court and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

On television, he has appeared in Down to Earth, Sparkling Cyanide, The Gentleman Thief, Davison's Eyes, HG Wells and the recent Andrew Davies' adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for the BBC, in which he played Willoughby.

His feature film credits include Neil Jordan's BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, FROM HELL, directed by the Hughes brothers, STARTER FOR TEN, alongside James McAvoy, directed by Tom Vaughn. He can currently be seen in MAMMA MIA! alongside Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. He recently completed filming AN EDUCATION, directed by Lone Scherfig from a Nick Hornby script which is due to be followed by Peter Howitt's DAVID COPPERFIELD, in which he will play Steerforth.

HAYLEY ATWELL - Lady Elizabeth Foster

Young British actress Hayley Atwell has appeared in numerous TV, theatre and film productions since graduating from the London Guildhall of Music and Drama in 2005. She made her film debut opposite Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor in Woody Allen's CASSANDRA'S DREAM, which premiered at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. 2007 also saw Hayley take the lead in Anthony Byrne's HOW ABOUT YOU alongside screen veterans Vanessa Redgrave and Imelda Staunton. Hayley can currently be seen in Julian Jarrold's BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, alongside Ben Whishaw and Matthew Goode.

Hayley's major TV break through was playing Catherine Fedden in the BBC's mini-series The Line of Beauty, adapted from Allan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize-winning novel by Andrew Davies, directed by Saul Dibb. She has also starred in the lavish ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park (2007) alongside Billie Piper. Additional TV credits include Fear of Fanny, based on Fanny Cradock the famous fifties TV chef, and TV-movie adaptation of Phillip Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke for the BBC.

Hayley made her theatre debut in "Women Beware Women" as Bianca in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production. She went on to play Lo in the Sound Theatre stage production of "Prometheus Bound" directed by James Kerr, and most recently George Etherege's "Man of Mode" and George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" directed by Nicholas Hytner for the National Theatre.

SIMON McBURNEY - Charles James Fox

Simon McBurney is an actor, writer and director who was most recently seen in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND with Forest Whitaker. He also starred with Jennifer Aniston and Frances McDormand in FRIENDS WITH MONEY. His other feature films include THE HUMAN TOUCH; Jonathan Demme's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE; Paul McGuigan's THE RECKONING; the title role of EISTENSTEIN; Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW; TOM AND VIV; BEING HUMAN; MESMER; COUSIN BETTER; ONEGIN; SKAGGERAK and BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS.

In theatre, McBurney is one of Europe's leading directors. As the co-founder and artistic director of Theatre de Complicte, he has devised, directed and acted in over 30 productions, toured all over the world and won numerous international awards. His production of "Mnemonic" earned a Time Out Live Award, a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, a Lucille Lortel Award and The Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, among others. His plays also include "The Elephant Vanishes" at Lincoln Center and "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" starring Al Pacino, Paul Giamatti, Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and Charles Durning. On Broadway he directed "The Chairs" for which he received a Tony nomination. In London, he recently both directed and starred in "Measure for Measure" and "A Minute Too Late" at the National Theatre.


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