Dour ‘Duchess’ stiff as an ironing board

"The Duchess" reminds us that non-traditional families are nothing new, certainly not to weirdo nobility across the pond.

It was in the late 1700s that England's Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), father of three girls (two by his wife) and desperate for a male heir, brought in a de facto spouse for backup.

I gotta say, I'm with the Duke on this one.

You can't have too many heir-providing options, and while his official wife (Keira Knightly) was the toast of London, a free-thinking human-rights activist and leading fashion icon, she was a couple va-va's short of a voom.

At least that's how it looks here. I've never seen an actress in less need of a corset than Knightley. When she reclines, it looks as though her clothes are being ironed.

And if the movie's rich period detail is accurate, it shows how dangerous it can be to be fashionable. In the tradition of the day, the Duchess wears her hair extended two feet above her head, with plummage on top of that. And I'm not sure, but I think Heath Ledger did her makeup.

Wife substitute Hayley Atwell, on the other hand, is like some spectacular combination of Diana Rigg and Jayne Mansfield. That being the case, I wonder why Fiennes doesn't look happier in the movie. Evidently, history pegs the Duke as a dour, emotionless fellow, and Fiennes dutifully supplies the dour.

It makes for a one-note characterization, and adds to the generally stiff, stagey feel that plagues "The Duchess." That's too bad, because there is enough here for meaty, meaningful narrative. The Duchess is deeply involved in politics, and romantically involved with a promising anti-slavery, pro-democracy politician (Dominic Cooper). The fellow might have a decisive role in the continent's future provided the scandalous affair, and the Duke's power, does not derail it.

I was hoping that the lord, his two wives and the potential prime minister might all converge, whereupon the Duchess might say that the problems of four little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but nothing like that happens, actually or emotionally.

"The Duchess" fails to define either the personal or political dramas in an exciting way. It's a costume drama that gets the costumes right, but not the drama. *

Produced by Gabrielle Tana and Michael Kuhn, directed by Saul Dibb, written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Saul Dibb and Anders Thomas Jensen, distributed by Paramount Vantage.


The Duchess

Directed by Saul Dibb. With Charlotte Rampling, Ralph Fiennes, Richard McCabe, Angus McEwan, Dominic Cooper, Simon McBurney, Keira Knightley, Mercy Fiennes Tiffin, Hayley Atwell, Aidan McArdle. Distributed by Paramount Vantage.

Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material).