Another day, yet another period drama. The genre can singlehandedly thank Miss Keira Knightley for its recent re-emergence, with her olden resume building through Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Edge of Love before her latest offering, The Duchess. Although her early roles were far from a past era there is the increasing view that she’s being typecast – after all, what was her last general romcom? Why she continues to choose these roles may be a mystery to many (particularly males who would rather her out of the corsets), but the archetype of the headstrong yet flawed woman ahead of her time can teach us a lot about the human condition.
The Duchess features many dramatic twists and turns that scream ‘scandal!’ revolving around the love square of Duchess Georgiana, Duke William, Charles Grey and Lady Elizabeth Turner. Based on a true story from Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, most of these concern the primary reason for being in the Victorian era; producing the male heir to keep the family estate, and this alone is what drives the emotion out of several characters. Relative newcomer Saul Dibb handles the direction fairly well; a beautiful mise-en-scene with help from cinematographer Gyula Pados and costume designer Michael O’Connor. However, he seems unsure of experimentation, with Knightley’s close-up in the middle of the shot a clear favourite. Lucky for Dibb this works well for the most part – her expression is almost always the same and yet continuously intriguing: fear mingled with frustration and disgust.
Knightley is undoubtedly now made for these roles; a reason for her (and the industry) to thrive on the current period-drama phase. The continuation of horrors that Georgiana goes through from such a young age makes you uneasy. Her uncertainty about her life, love and family makes for very uncomfortable viewing, almost physically sickening, and Knightley is a natural at conveying this. The cold chemistry between Georgiana and Duke William comes across brilliantly, with Ralph Fiennes creating a very placid and fidgety character for the chauvinistic husband. It’s hard even towards the film’s end to try and create sympathy for him. Dominic Cooper gives us something to think about as Georgiana’s lover Charles Grey, after straying from young adult roles in The History Boys and Mamma Mia!. He creates a modest yet ambitious politician, and compliments Fiennes’ coldness with comforting warmth.
Prior to the release there were questions asked on the relevance of sexual content within the film, particularly one violent scene between Knightley and Fiennes. Although it is difficult to watch (as any extreme scene is), the relevance is there and comes to represent suppression and frustration of Georgiana’s life – she knows there is better but is powerless to do anything about it. A popular noble and fashionista of her time, everyone but her husband is in love with her. That’s what appeals about this film more than the plot – not what actually happens but the character development of Georgiana throughout. Maybe that’s why Knightley always returns to these roles – they represent issues relevant even in society today about vulnerability in women and relationships in general.
Though there is definitely star power, at 106 minutes The Duchess manages to feel like a much longer film. That may be from the uneasiness of some scenes, but on later reflection it appears much more complex than meets the eye. It’s not just a love story, but a tragedy of a life cornered by power and egotism.