The Duchess (2008)

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling, Simon McBurney

Directed by: Saul Dibb

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Keira Knightley as The Duchess

The eponymous duchess of this beautifully fashioned historical film is an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. And like her more famous descendent, she led a fabulous, extravagant, scandalous and ultimately sad and lonely life.

After discovering she's been chosen for marriage by the country's foremost peer, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), our heroine's romantic teenage dreams are rudely punctured when she discovers he only cares about two things: his dogs and getting a son. In that order.

After a devastating wedding night during which her new husband cuts her garments from her with a knife to reveal a thin child's body criss-crossed with the patterns of her tight underclothes, Georgiana fails to immediately drop a male sprog and so soon finds herself out of favour. And, despite a reputation as the most glamorous, fashionable and desirable woman in the land ('the only person who's not in love with her is her husband,' the PM wryly notes), she's quickly usurped by a series of other women.

The final straw, however, comes when her husband takes Lady Bess Morton (Hayley Atwell), Georgiana's best friend (and, the film hints coyly, lover) as his latest conquest, moving her and her children (all boys, naturally) into their home. (Apparently in reality there were three of them in the marriage in a more intimate sense – but this is only a 12A film so let's gloss over that shall we?)

Of course, when G tries to turn the tables by embarking on an ill-fated romance with up and coming Whig politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), she quickly discovers that there's one guideline for men and an entirely different battery of rules for their wives. And, as an inveterate gambler, she knows too well that in the game of matrimony, her husband hold all the cards.

Plus ça change? Well, while Diana got a divorce and a series of flings with millionaires, G gets banished to the country, so I'd say, yes, things have changed – thank God.

Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Keira Knightley is at her most Keira Knightley-esque as the gorgeous Georgiana, part sultry, jutting-jawed Hollywood coquette, part gawky English rose, all nervous fingers and hollow eyes. I still don't think she's a great actress (where are the great actresses of her generation?) but it's still a damn fine performance.

Ralph Fiennes is also superb as her blunt, single-minded, emotionally straitjacketed husband, resisting any urge to give it the full, stuttering Rory Bremner Prince Charles in favour of a studiously drawn portrait of a simple man moulded by generations of tradition, baffled by the complexities of womankind.

Handsome settings, gorgeously sumptuous costumes and a script that won't make you cringe all add up to a fine film that's involving, appealing and ultimately really rather sad. Like the lives of many celebrated women, from Marie Antoinette to Kylie Minogue, Elizabeth I to Princess Diana, it's a film that proves that, while customs, laws and attitudes may change, some things never do change, and just because you seem to have it all, it doesn't necessarily mean you do.

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