- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

“The Duchess” is one frustrating film to watch.

It’s not that the ethereally beautiful Keira Knightley isn’t convincing as the title’s 18th-century aristocrat. She is.

It’s not that the period drama isn’t filled with the requisite sumptuous sets and killer costumes. It is.

It’s not that this 200-year-old story has no relevance to life as it’s lived today. It does.

It’s simply that the real-life woman at the center of the tale, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, just can’t catch a break. It’s hard to watch the patriarchy’s big black boot stomping on the female heart for nearly two hours.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though. The trailer for “The Duchess” plays up the tale’s parallels to modern life. Usually this is a cynical promotional ploy, but this time, it’s not far from the mark.

The film begins in 1774, when the 16-year-old Lady Georgiana Spencer is betrothed to the 25-year-old Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, who looks and is much older than that). The naive girl thinks the duke is in love with her.

She’s soon disillusioned. Before she even has had her own children with her husband, she must welcome his illegitimate daughter into her home. She has the patience of a saint, raising the child as her own and putting up with her husband’s incessant infidelities. He eventually goes too far, taking as his mistress Georgiana’s closest confidante, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell).

Georgiana has no choice but to let Bess live with them. When she asks for the same consideration — she’s in love with rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) — her husband practically imprisons and rapes her. As I said, she can’t catch a break.

The late Diana, Princess of Wales, famously declared, “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” The same could be said of her Spencer ancestor Georgiana. Like Diana, Georgiana was better loved than her husband and established herself as an aristocratic celebrity who influenced both fashion and politics.

There’s much to be learned here, although sometimes it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. Bess claims, “It’s not illegal for a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as the stick is no bigger than his thumb,” but that old canard was discredited years ago. Georgiana flirts with Charles before she’s engaged, but he would have been 10 years old at the time.

Ignore the details and focus on the big picture. In a year when everybody’s focused on the role of women in politics, the life of the Whig trailblazer Georgiana offers plenty of food for thought.

★★★

TITLE: “The Duchess”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material)

CREDITS: Directed by Saul Dibb. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Mr. Dibb based on the biography “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” by Amanda Foreman.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: theduchessmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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