Fifteen years ago, there was a name that was used for actresses of the same caliber and quality as Keira Knightley, corseted English roses with an overabundance of wit and vivacity. That name was Helena Bonham Carter. Despite a similarity in assets and career trajectory (pale pre-Raphaelite beauty perfectly suited to multiple period roles), the tenor of the material that the two actresses have worked with has changed dramatically in the decade-plus span of time that separates their cinematic beginnings. William Shakespeare, E.M. Forster and Mary Shelley—these are the time-honored names that penned the characters Bonham Carter was charged with bringing to life. Knightley, on the other hand, has cemented her status as leading lady in films adapted from antiquated tales by modern authors such as Alessandro Baricco, Ian McEwan, and now again in The Duchess, based on a novel by Amanda Foreman.
It's 1774, and Georgiana Spencer (Knightley portraying this ancestor of both Princess Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York) has married William Cavendish, Fifth Duke of Devonshire (the excellent Ralph Fiennes), but the union, while politically and socially attractive, is an unhappy pairing. Her husband, a leader in the Whig party, treats her as little more than an heir-producer and, in answer, Georgiana makes a name for herself as a political activist and fashion trendsetter, the toast of a captivated but capricious London upper-crust society. Though surrounded by the most influential thinkers and artists of the day, her public successes are still overshadowed by the sorrows of her private life. When the Duke takes her best friend Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) as his mistress, Georgiana is confronted with the unequal expectations and rights that are accorded to the different genders in pre-suffrage Britain.
Thanks in large part to her work in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but also due to her Oscar-nominated turn in Pride and Prejudice, Knightley has become Hollywood's go-to girl for spunky and intelligent historical heroines. While these qualities are sufficient for such derivative drivel as the Bruckheimer misfire King Arthur, this film reminds us that Knightley possesses that ineffable element that allows her to portray pathos far beyond her own experience. Quite simply, she displays the cinematic equivalent of an old soul. Fortunately, the modernity of the material allows her to express the true complexity of a woman who is frequently veiled in historical works.
Perfectly complementing her wonderful performance is Fiennes, his nuanced portrayal of the Duke alternately inviting the audience's scorn and sympathy. Initially appearing to be an irredeemable villain, the latter half of the film exposes his character as a man who acts both from selfishness and in response to expectation, but is ashamed and bewildered by these feelings. Fiennes masterfully inhabits this difficult role, one that could easily be forgettable in a less powerful actor's hands. Charlotte Rampling makes an indelible mark as the opportunistic Lady Spencer, and Dominic Cooper is appropriately brooding as the man Georgiana cannot have.
In spite of the lavish costuming and set design, director Saul Dibb admirably displays a restrained style. The story is not lost in the opulence of the elaborate rococo period, but allowed to proceed without the minuets and big-hair parading that obfuscates many films about the 18th century. Quieter touches, such as bodice-imprinted marks that allude to bondage and whip scars, communicate far more about Georgiana's prisoner-like condition than any choreographed spectacle. A splendid score contributed by the superb Rachel Portman acknowledges the film's historicity while remaining contemporary.
The Duchess may be a blatant Oscar attempt for Keira Knightley after last year's surprising shutout for Atonement, but it is still an excellently crafted film. Given the economic times, it's saying a lot to claim that Ralph Fiennes' performance alone is worth your hard-earned cash. Just one word of advice to Knightley: Bonham Carter escaped being typecast only because of the savage brilliance of Fight Club, and I know you've tried to do the same but, hopefully, no one holds Domino against you.