One of the bigger premieres of the first few days at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), The Duchess is a new take on a period drama, directed by the British filmmaker Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy). Set amidst the carefully manicured lawns of the British aristocracy of the late 18th century, The Duchess is foremost a powerful character drawing of Georgina Spencer (Keira Knightley), a fashion icon, political figure, and wife to the powerful Duke of Devonshire.
The subtle details are accurate to perfection and the costumes and sets are a feast for the eyes in this period drama, but you would not expect any less from the British history films. It’s the extraordinary fate itself and the development of Georgina’s character from a feisty young woman to a sacrificing mother and political powerhouse that make this movie captivating. The Duchess has more influence over crowds and sway of political opinion than she does over her own personal life. Initiated into a loveless marriage and unable to produce an heir for the old-fashioned Duke performed beautifully by Ralph Fiennes, she suffers from his neglect and gruff treatment.
The Duke of Devonshire is interpreted as a man of his epoch, simply executing his role in the cemented structure of the British elite (which caught some laughs from the festival audience). Ralph Fiennes brings a human quality to him by avoiding any intent, exaggeration or ill will. This makes Georgina’s fate even more tragic—as if her troubles are caused by the conflict between her personality and the role of woman in 18th century British society, rather than anyone in particular.
Among the stellar supporting performances are Hayley Atwell, who manages to combine artfulness and loyalty in her portrayal of the Duke’s mistress, and Charlotte Rampling, who plays a dedicated and rational mother to the Duchess. The only monochromatic character in Duchess is Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who fails to establish strong chemistry with Keira Knightly or impress with charisma, which you’d think is necessary to later become Prime Minister.
Keira Knightley’s performance gains new depth—she not only perfectly portrays a witty and feminine Georgina early in the film, but also a caring mother, and an abandoned woman later on. Also remarkable in this role is Knightley’s ability to portray the strengths, weaknesses, and the internal hurdles of Georgina, as well as her internal contemplation. It must be noted that a star supporting cast and strong direction from Saul Dibb played an important role in her successful performance.
The casting and/or costumes could be done a bit differently, perhaps, as there seems to be little temptation to escape Ralph Fiennes for Dominic Cooper, and little motherliness in Keira Knightly who happens to play a mother of 3-4 children throughout most of the film. In a number of cases, Keira just looks more like an adolescent pirate in duchess’s clothes than a sacrificing and tormented mother of 3.
Overall—The Dutchess is well worth seeing if you like Keira Knightley and/or British period pieces.