The Duchess is the best women's movie of the summer. Don't get too excited: Sex and the City, Mamma Mia!, and The Women set the bar so dismally low that almost any film with a dame in it who doesn't channel her identity only through buying, boogieing, or bedding is bound to come up smelling something like a rose.
Lady Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), an 18th-century English blueblood who married way up and became the filthy rich Duchess of Devonshire, hardly shortchanged herself in the pleasure department, while also hitting the bottle and the card tables as consolation for some hefty sorrows. But according to The Duchess, she wasn't defined by high living.
It's true that Georgiana pioneered big hair and blazed a party trail for her direct descendant, Lady Diana Spencer. Like Diana, she grew into a trend-setting, outwardly poised socialite who turned heads whenever she entered a room. But according to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a well-received biography by Amanda Foreman, there was a lot more to the lady than making the celebrity rounds or patting the hands of the poor. Deeply involved in politics, she took a lively interest in Enlightenment philosophy, stumped for reformist Whigs, and took one of them — Charles, Earl Grey — as her lover despite being married to the icy William Cavendish, the duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She must have made a man out of Grey (played here by an incongruously laddish Dominic Cooper), since he went on to become the first abolitionist prime minister, albeit best remembered for having a posh tea named after him.
Cruising lightly over Georgiana's activism with a few fleeting scenes in which we see her jousting over the precise meaning of freedom with Whig politician Charles Fox (played with reptilian charm by the delicious Simon Courtney), writer-director Saul Dibb, a young British comer with an astute feel for the uses and the limits of frocks and periwigs, firmly turns the spotlight on Georgiana's colorful love life. Like Diana, Georgiana was married off in her teens to an icy stiff whose carnal tastes included fornicating upstairs and down, and who thought nothing of bedding his wife's best friend (Hayley Atwell). She stayed on at Devonshire House, and The Duchess becomes the admirably nuanced story of their ménage a trois.
To their credit, Dibb and his co-writers, Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, don't try to make a gaga hippie paradise out of this fraught arrangement, or cast Georgiana as some freewheeling sexual radical. Like every power elite, the British aristocracy has always set its own sexual rules and taken an elastic approach to marital fidelity — so long as it was the man who strayed. William can sire all the out-of-wedlock children he likes, but when Georgiana gets pregnant by Grey, she runs smack into the full force of male power and faces both poverty and the loss of her children. For all its frisky high-jinks, brocaded homes, and creamy bosoms, The Duchess is a tragedy about the terrifying vulnerability of even the richest women in a society that deprives them of property rights.
As a story of renunciation and mature self-sacrifice, The Duchess would be almost unbearably moving were it not for the insubstantial performance of its lead, a case of marquee casting if ever there was one. Knightley's strongest emotional register is a kind of adolescent sexual challenge — in a recent interview, she kept telling a male reporter to "fuck off." I'm told that the actress drives men mad with lust, but to my mind, her only noteworthy performance thus far was as a tomboy soccer player in Bend It Like Beckham, in which she couldn't rely on her looks. Since then, she has been spiffed up and dumbed down into a Hollywood gamine. She makes a pouting, simpering Georgiana, lacking the presence or the subtlety (as the statuesque and gifted young actress Romola Garai might have had, or even Hayley Atwell herself) to show a naive ingénue maturing into a sophisticated woman, and standing up to the overbearing mother (Charlotte Rampling) who wants to rein her in.
As a result, Knightley is thoroughly upstaged by Fiennes, who despite having played many a stiff quite stiffly, has bags of fun here as a jerk — but also a man of his time who isn't oblivious to the happiness of the women in his life. There's a knowing twinkle in the duke's flinty blue eyes that's hard to resist, and in light of the bloviating campaign season we're all suffering through, it's hard to fully dismiss a man who airily exits his own chattering-class dinner party early on the grounds that he "doesn't mind the politics, but can't stand the rhetoric."