'The Duchess': Free Spirits, Tight Laces And Scandal

Keira Knightley i i

Grace and favors: Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) goes public with her politics when her private life proves insufficiently exciting. Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage hide caption

itoggle caption Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage
Keira Knightley

Grace and favors: Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) goes public with her politics when her private life proves insufficiently exciting.

Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage

The Duchess

  • Director: Saul Dibb
  • Genre: Drama, History
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.

Dominic Cooper and Keira Knightley in a romantic clutch i i

Earl Grey, hot: Georgiana's political conquests include future Prime Minister Charles, Earl Grey (Dominic Cooper). hide caption

itoggle caption
Dominic Cooper and Keira Knightley in a romantic clutch

Earl Grey, hot: Georgiana's political conquests include future Prime Minister Charles, Earl Grey (Dominic Cooper).

British actress Keira Knightley has become Hollywood's go-to star for costume epics of late: She's donned corsets or elaborate wigs for Pride and Prejudice, King Arthur and all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and she's been downright upholstered as the privileged but unfortunate Georgiana Spencer in The Duchess.

Georgiana was, as the film's PR campaign makes clear, a distant (as in 18th century) relative of Diana Spencer, later and better known as the Princess of Wales — her great-great-great-great aunt.

And from the way she's portrayed in the film, which is based on a best-selling historical biography by Amanda Foreman, it seems their lives had quite a few parallels.

Both were fashion plates, both beloved by the public for having quick wits and a common touch.

And both their husbands were older, duller, didn't particularly love their wives — and were prone to having affairs. The Duke of Devonshire, played by Ralph Fiennes, doesn't really seem interested in Georgiana at all, except in her capacity as a sort of broodmare who will provide him with an heir. Small wonder the duchess grew bored with him and became a public figure.

The screenplay tracks both Georgiana's involvement in politics and her involvement with a handsome young politician — Charles Grey, the earl who later became Britain's prime minister (and yes, the tea is named for him) — so scandal rears its engagingly disruptive head early and often.

Director Saul Dibb, presumably knowing that this is pretty standard stuff for a costume epic, occupies us not just with the usual visuals — of his star drifting through exquisitely furnished estates, draped in rich silks and brocades — but also with some intriguingly offbeat sights.

Knightley's wig, for instance, gets bigger and bigger as the character grows more unhappy, until finally it catches fire — leading to the potentially immortal line, "Please put out Her Grace's hair."

And when Her Grace undresses — or rather, is undressed by an impatient if only vaguely attentive duke on their wedding night — the director shows us the pinch marks made in Knightley's back by her tight-laced corset.

As many times as I've watched women getting strapped into those things in costume epics, I don't think I've ever seen the pinched flesh. Says worlds, I'd say, about what both the star and the duchess were willing to put up with.

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