Teenaged Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) has intercourse for the first time with her new husband, the much older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Imagine this scene for a moment if you can. Ordered to strip naked and lie on the bed, Georgiana trembles with positive terror as her husband enters her with all the wordless efficiency of a man fulfilling a prescribed brief; Knightley’s exquisite face gradually crumbles as it dawns on her that this is how it shall always be.
It’s a brilliantly unsettling bit of visual storytelling and it’s all the more memorable in retrospect because nothing else in this lavishly appointed historical biopic comes close to matching its emotional honesty or alluring strangeness.
The film has the slick, diverting pull of a glossy magazine article, and goes about that deep. Knightley’s Georgiana is sufficiently sympathetic to carry you with her through the various storytelling hoops, but as the credits rolled, I didn’t feel I knew her at all.
The story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is simple enough. Forced at 17 into a loveless marriage to a frigid aristocrat, she has but one duty to fulfill: provide the Duke with a male heir. As she repeatedly fails to deliver on this “promise,” bearing only daughters, her increasingly cruel husband engages in a series of barely-concealed affairs, the last of which culminates in an awkward ménage à trois with Georgiana’s former confidante, the disgraced Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell). Georgiana, meanwhile, falls in ill-fated love with handsome future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).
As Grey, Cooper’s blank screen presence is even more problematic, his character is so sketchily conceived (on the page as well as in the playing, admittedly) that the dramatic stakes of his doomed relationship with Georgiana are considerably reduced.
And therein lies the problem with the film as a whole; beautifully mounted and superficially compelling as it is, there’s simply no depth of feeling there. From “Dangerous Liaisons” to “The Piano,” the best costume dramas are founded on the tension between the rigidly defined manners of the period and the eternal, visceral human impulses underneath. “The Duchess” is too polite to go there.