[Screen It]

(2008) (Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes) (PG-13)

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Drama: Married to a powerful Duke only to produce an heir, an 18th century Duchess must contend with her husband's infidelity as well as her growing attraction to another man.
It's 1774 and the Duke of Devonshire (RALPH FIENNES) is looking for a wife who will produce him a male heir, and he's set his sights on teenager Georgiana (KEIRA KNIGHTLEY), daughter of Lady Spencer (CHARLOTTE RAMPLING). The young woman eagerly accepts his proposal, easily forgoing her attraction to young, aspiring politician Charles Grey (DOMINIC COOPER).

Quickly married, the Duke wastes no time in trying to father a child, while Georgiana just as speedily settles into her prominent role, spending time with politicians such as Charles Fox (SIMON McBURNEY) and theater types such as playwright Richard Sheridan (AIDAN McARDLE).

It isn't long, however, before she learns of her husband's adulterous ways, including that he has a daughter by a servant who's since died, meaning it's now up to Georgiana to be her mother. Things become more complicated when Georgiana convinces the Duke to allow Bess Foster (HAYLEY ATWELL) to stay with him. She's a married mother whose husband has absconded with their children and she's now homeless. She and Georgiana become fast friends, that is, until the Duke sets his sights on her as well.

From that point on, and as she fails to produce a male heir for the increasingly impatient and adulterous Duke, Georgiana must contend with the related indignities of their marriage, as well as her growing attraction to Grey who's reentered her life.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Let's face it, until relatively recently (meaning the 20th century through now) and with not that many exceptions, women have gotten the short shrift when it comes to how men and society (mostly controlled by that sex) in general have viewed and treated them.

Save for those fortunate enough to be born into royalty and earmarked for queen-dom, most women of the past were relegated to their biological purpose - birthing and raising children and, by default, caring for the home, in whatever form that might take. And many, if not most, suffered from uncaring, unloving and/or abusive husbands who deemed them useful and necessary only for that purpose.

Even those with some power in royal families couldn't entirely escape such trappings and roles. While there were always all sorts of servants to care for, educate and raise offspring, royal wives' most important duty was to produce male heirs to keep power in the ruling family.

Most of those in the past have faded into relative or complete obscurity (aside from the world of historical scholars and such), with their only hope of resurrection coming from movies portraying them. The latest such subject is Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), the first wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, and now titular protagonist in "The Duchess."

Her name might not ring many bells among lay people, but in her day Cavendish was quite the figure, noted for her beauty, love for gambling, fashion style and, at a time when such things weren't fashionable for women, her involvement in politics. Although not an exact match in terms of behavior and/or influence, an interesting side note is that one of her family's descendants (via her brother) was none other than Diana, Princess of Wales, who lived a life, remarkably enough, not that far removed from her predecessor.

Here, she's terrifically played by Keira Knightley who's quickly replacing Judi Dench as the go-to performer for playing British royalty (although the young actress obviously has a bit to go before tackling the sort of matronly monarchs Dench has skillfully perfected to the point that they might as well hand her the award right there on the set during filming). Yet, speaking of that, and unless a bevy of better performances come along between now and the end of the year, Knightley will most likely receive her share of nominations for her work here.

Writer/director Saul Dibb -- working from his and Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen's adaptation of Amanda Foreman's biographical look at Cavendish -- gets a wonderfully nuanced performance from his 23-year-old star. While her character's trajectory and dramatic growth follow the standard conventions -- young woman chosen to marry an older suitor, overwhelmed but quickly adapting to and then taking advantage of her good fortune, followed by marital discord, repression and adultery from both sides, followed by some degree of final freedom -- Knightley plays all of them with pitch-perfect aplomb and thus creates a sympathetic, endearing and engaging character.

Also potentially up for awards consideration -- supporting style -- is Ralph Fiennes as her adulterous and mostly passive aggressive husband who's only interested in siring a child via her, when not having his way with any number of other women. His is not a likable character, but Fiennes is quite good in the part, and more than ably serves as the multi-layered catalyst for all that occurs to the protagonist.

Supporting performances are good across the board, and, as is to be expected from such fare, the costumes, sets and overall production design are first-rate (and should similarly receive their share of accolades, nominations and such). Yet, it's unfortunate the overall film likely won't join them.

It's not that it's bad by any means, but the material, both in terms of the direction and script, never manages to impress let alone wow the viewer along the lines of the various elements that constitute the overall piece, and it's a bit slow if clearly competently and confidently handled. As time inevitably marches on, "The Duchess" will probably disappear into cinematic obscurity, but Knightley's performance will likely be remembered as yet another remarkable achievement in what's becoming a solid career for her. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed September 8, 2008 / Posted October 10, 2008

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