It seems that with each passing year, there comes a point in time when we will inevitably find the young and beautiful Keira Knightley in yet another period drama. It also seems like every period drama these days, whether it features Knightley or not, feels the need to disassociate itself from the conventions of the past and assert itself as fresh, with a unique twist on the genre. This is particularly challenging when the story is one we’ve seen a number of times prior. The true story of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, as told by director, Saul Dibb in “The Duchess”, is one where a young girl of “modest” heritage is married off to a prominent Duke for a price. Her duty is to serve his grace and provide to him a male heir. As a woman, she is nothing more than a decorative commodity and should she not be able to fulfill her wifely promises, then she is essentially useless. Dibb is smart about it though. With the point already made before the film even begins, he chooses to focus instead on the reality of this kind of imprisonment – what it feels like for a girl beneath her binding bodice.
Knightley carries the weight of this film on her shoulders while carrying the weight of the wigs on her head with poise and prominence. Her big brown eyes go from playful to shy to distraught and defeated. When we first meet her, she is free and seemingly unaware of the heavier world outside of her backyard games. Before long though, she is face to face with adulthood. This particular face belongs to Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire. It is here that Dibb steps in to add another layer to the played out trajectory. With an age difference that is only matched in vastness by the distance between them, the Duke undresses his Duchess and asks why women’s clothing must be so complicated. There is no better time for small talk than before two practical strangers go to bed for the first time. Knightley, trying desperately to hide her nervousness, replies with to the obviously rhetorical question though, claiming that is the only way for women to express themselves in the times they live in. It is clear she is not sure that a reply is necessary or even allowed but it is also clear that she speaks to ensure that she is seen, that her person is present. Her clothing falls to the floor and the imprints of her corset can still be seen on the smooth of her back.
Dibb follows this form of unexpected intimacy and insight with commentary about celebrity and how little the adoring public truly knows about their icons. The Duchess of Devonshire, or at least the one in “The Duchess”, was an immense influence on her people. Her presence at events guaranteed crowds while her fashion determined the trends. Even her association with particular people could sway public and political opinion. She embodied grace and extravagance while remaining humble
Review by Joseph Bélanger