In 18th century England, aristocratic Georgiana (Keira Knightley), is maneuvered by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) into a strained marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), a cold and cruel man only interested in her as a means of having a male heir. Georgiana is trapped in her unhappy marriage which soon becomes a preposterous triangle with her husband and his live-in mistress (Hayley Atwell). She falls passionately in love with ambitious young politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), and the affair causes a bitter conflict with her husband and threatens to erupt into a huge scandal with devastating consequences.
Review by Louise Keller:
It seems Princess Diana was not the only royal whose marriage comprised three people. This cinematic and emotionally potent drama set in the 18th century and based on a true story, looks at a ménage a trois that is filled with compelling elements. Director Saul Dibb's film is ravishing to look at with its gorgeous English locations and lavishly sumptuous castles and stately homes with all the interior and exterior trimmings. But beneath the wigs and lavish costumes lurk secrets, longings and the main thrust of the story which explores the notion that a woman will sacrifice anything and everything for her children. Impressive in every way beginning with a punchy script, we become totally involved in this carefully constructed world where appearances defy what goes on behind closed doors. Keira Knightley perfectly embodies the eager-to-please young bride with stars in her eyes, while Ralph Fiennes is chilling as the man who shows more affection for his dogs than his wife.
Loyalty and a male heir are the things expected of Keira Knightley's Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire, by her emotionally crippled husband (Ralph Fiennes), the only man in England not in love with her. 'You'll get used to it,' The Duke tells his new wife about the attention their positions command. Georgiana's ambitious mother (Charlotte Rampling) schools her daughter to equip herself with patience, fortitude and determination as she endures a loveless marriage filled with pressure to produce a male heir. Hayley Atwell's Bess, who becomes Georgiana's confidante and best friend (Atwell is excellent), is also responsible for her heartbreak when an untenable situation unravels within her own home. The relationship and understanding between Georgiana and Bess form the emotional heart of the film, while her evolving relationship with Dominic Cooper's charming politician Grey allows The Duchess a window from which she can spy happiness.
Rachel Portman colours her distinctively phrased score with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as the tension and passions of the story evolve. Manicured gardens with lakes and swans, chandeliers, book-lined walls, tapestries and a privileged lifestyle... It is easy to become immersed in the plight of these characters whose story is profoundly moving and satisfying.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Mouth watering scandal, a juicy love triangle and high powered men behaving badly make this a solid drama about character and society in 18th century England - especially as it is based on real events. Keira Knightly carries the film on her pretty shoulders as the young woman pushed into a useful but ultimately disastrous marriage by her mother, played by the splendid Charlotte Rampling. Now the wife of the all powerful Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana discovers too late that she is married to a cruel, hard hearted man who doesn't love her but wants her to have his son and heir. When she can't manage a boy child after two attempts (and some still births as well as miscarriages) her husband turns feral.
Knightly is terrific as the wounded young wife whose life continues to be full of emotional pain and sacrifice, while Ralph Fiennes is darkly, disturbingly effective as the nasty old Duke with few scruples - or manners. Hayley Atwell provides valuable and emotionally tormented support as Lady Elisabeth, whose own marriage has disintegrated with her two young sons taken by their father. This proves to be a fatal lever that the Duke uses to get his way in how the lives around him are lived.
The characters are fascinating figures, and the Duke's power is nowhere better demonstrated than in the fact he can get away with having his mistress live in the same house (however large it is) as his wife. In 18th century England, when scandal was as dangerous to standing and career as a prison sentence, this was a spectacular show of strength. Fiennes plays the Duke with a remarkable intensity that adds layers of complexity to what may have turned out as a flat caricature. He had to be that good to keep up with Knightley's heartbreaking performance.
Dramatic and emotionally satisfying - if not for the poor old characters - the film looks fabulous, thanks to top production design and cinematography. Rachel Portman's score also works a treat, and the film's core themes are cleverly handled by director Saul Dibb.
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DUCHESS, THE (M)
CAST: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, Mercy Fiennes Tiffin, Georgia King, Angus McEwan, Richard McCabe,
PRODUCER: Michael Kuhn, Gabriella Tana,
DIRECTOR: Saul Dibb
SCRIPT: Anders Thomas Jensen, Paul Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher (book by Amanda Foreman)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Gyula Pados
EDITOR: Masahiro Hirakubo
MUSIC: Rachel Portman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Michael Carlin
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 2, 2008