Knightley falters in the "The Duchess"

BY ANNIE LEVENE
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 12, 2008

“The Duchess”
Paramount Vantage
At The Michigan Theater, Quality 16 and Showcase
2 out of 5 Stars

Another year, another Keira Knightley period piece. It’s unclear what the girl has against blue jeans, but she should probably talk to someone because it’s becoming a serious problem. Not in the sense that she doesn’t look good in billowing ball gowns and tight corsets; it’s more that Knightley’s fetish for all things ornate has led to some bad decisions when choosing movie roles. “The Duchess” is one such poor choice.

“The Duchess” is one of those “real” tales of the scandalous lives of the 18th century elite. Keep in mind scandalous was a relative term back then. Sure, living with your wife and mistress under one roof must have been pretty shocking. But in those days, so was the idea of letting women vote.

The film chronicles the marriage and subsequent tumultuous union between Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (Knightley) and William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”). The problem, as it always seems to be with those British aristocrats portrayed on film, is Georgiana’s inability to produce a male heir. The rest of the film is a compilation of high and unattractive hair-dos, cheating husbands and shirtless shots of Dominic Cooper.

Not unlike the young celebrities of today’s Hollywood, Georgiana was the subject of both praise and gossip: Praise for setting fashion trends and hosting parties; gossip for stepping out on the Duke for hot (and illegitimate child-creating) sex with future Prime Minster — and inspiration for Earl Grey tea — Charles Grey (Cooper, “Mamma Mia!”). Knightley does just fine with that socialite side of her character — she can pull off the costumes and the proper behavior. It’s the other aspect of Georgiana, the matriarch side, which just doesn’t seem believable coming from an actress like Knightley. While the film is ultimately a tragic tale, Knightley doesn’t ever really portray any sort of emotion other than that of a moody teenager, complete with awful posture at the dinner table. She also lacks any sort of credibility for portraying a mother of four. At 23, she’s a child herself. She just looks like she’s babysitting.

Knightley’s immaturity is amplified when contrasted with the two “adults.” Fiennes's Cavendish and Charlotte Rampling, as Lady Spencer, Georgina’s mom, are the film's saving graces. For playing such an unlikeable guy — his pastimes include finding mistresses and ignoring his children — Fiennes’s Duke is actually quite funny. His deadpan responses to his wife’s attempts to communicate are a perfect portrayal of a man who can’t be bothered with the trivialities of a marriage. He just wants a son and some time alone. Rampling (“Babylon A.D.”), in turn, does what Knightley can’t. She creates a character who is sympathetic to the tribulations of being a woman in that time period, but who also knows there is little that can be done.

It’s unclear when Knightley was crowned the “it girl” of period pieces, but there should probably be a recount of the votes. “The Duchess” does have gorgeous, extravagant sets and costumes, but Knightley’s scowling face overshadows it all. Not unlike Georgiana and the Duke, Knightley and “The Duchess” is just a bad match.