Ravishing as a Gainsborough portrait, rapt by its subject's real estate, high hair and higher style,
chronicles a momentous decade in the life of 18th-century fashion plate and political hostess Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
Like her celebrated descendant, Princess Diana, the glittering duchess was beloved by everyone except a glum spouse who preferred the company of loyal dogs and a submissive mistress to that of his independent-minded celebrity wife. Any resemblance between the dour duke and a certain present-day prince is strictly intentional.
In the opening scenes of filmmaker Saul Dibb's highly varnished tableau, Keira Knightley glows as the coltish 17-year-old affianced to England's most eligible bachelor (Ralph Fiennes), permitting herself to believe her mother's suggestion that she is his true love. To the pragmatic duke, who turns to ice in the face of his fiancee's ardent fire, she is a brood mare in corsets.
Where the duchess' great-great-great-great-niece Diana swiftly delivered a male heir and a spare to carry on the Windsor family line, Georgiana was considerably slower in the fulfillment paddock. Movingly, the film suggests that her need for tenderness and her husband's desire for more complaisant partners were an impediment.
Unloved in her marbled and marquetry prison, Georgiana sought affection outside it. Garnishing chapeaus with ostrich plumes, lacing her wit with wine, she was the life of every party, including that of the Whigs. The duke was the pooper, trailing boredom in his shroudlike cloak.
As Dibb - and co-screenwriters Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen - tell it in the film adapted from Amanda Foreman's biography, the moody duke and merry duchess were an epic mismatch, as unthinkable a pair as Mr. Rochester and Elizabeth Bennet - or Voldemort and Hermione Granger.
The duchess was a soaring creature, so the earthbound duke clipped her wings - and in the film's most chilling scene, also her elaborately festooned bodice. (While the dresses, designed by Michael O'Connor, are smashing, the marital rape is shocking.)
Dibb deploys the language of movie gothic - ominous boot heels shot from extreme low angle, shadows playing over an inscrutable face - to characterize the duke. And Fiennes, who in his palette has as many shades of black - among them midnight, jet, raven, ebony, coal, onyx, burnt oak - as there are colors in the Benjamin Moore swatchbox, offers them all in a nuanced portrait of insulted patriarchy that effectively, although perhaps inadvertently, hijacks the film from the title figure. Cinematographer Gyula Pados captures every shade of black, as well as all the brilliant hues in the duchess' spectrum.
For the duchess, Dibb conducts a kind of cinematic chamber music: The rustle of taffeta and flicker of candlelight accompany her every action. As Knightley plays her, she is a creature of movement, vitality and song. And when Dibb pulls back for the long shot, she is also the rare bird clawing discordantly at the bars of her gilded cage, a theme underlined by Rachel Portman's score.
When the duchess befriends another of her species, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) - estranged from her own husband and barred from seeing her children - Georgiana opens her heart and home. No sooner does Bess gently instruct her new friend that sex is something to be enjoyed, not feared, than the interloper becomes the duke's mistress. Strongly hinted is that Bess is both the fulcrum of the seesawing Devonshire marriage and the hypotenuse of a menage a trois.
In the spirit of what's sauce for gander is gravy for goose, Georgiana, cardsharp and gambler, proposes a deal. The duke can carry on with Bess if the duchess can take her childhood friend, Charles, Earl Grey (Dominic Cooper as the future prime minister and man for whom the tea was named), as her lover.
The bemused expression on the duke's face - why would I deal when I hold all the cards? - cracks the duchess' jaw. And the rumble of gothic thunder permanently overtakes the charming chamber divertimento.
At this pivotal moment, the film's sympathies seem to subtly shift from duchess to duke - from how resourceful and exuberant the duchess is to how demanding and petulant. I wondered if female screenwriters would have dramatized this sequence differently. See: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. (Coincidentally, the French queen and duchess were intimates.)
While attempting to depict the injustice of patriarchy, the filmmakers would appear to guiltily enjoy its spectacle. And when the duchess is dealt what might be called the Sophie's Choice hand, they furthermore imply that Georgiana never really rebounded from losing this game of marital poker. Just because the filmmakers and their financiers deny Georgiana a third act doesn't mean she did not have one. While I much liked The Duchess, this portrait feels unfinished.