Once “The Duchess,” a sumptuous but empty melodrama, really kicks into high gear, you might expect Lord Jerry of Springer to emerge and start handing out advice to the dysfunctional royals. This mostly true story of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, has all the tawdry behind-closed-doors shenanigans of a daytime talk show, but none of the excitement. It’s as if the characters are as bored as we are.
Keira Knightley drapes another set of historically accurate petticoats and bustles over her praying-mantis frame to play Georgiana, who in 1774, at the age of 17, marries William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire. Played by Ralph Fiennes, the Duke is older than Georgiana, humorless and passionless, and he has no hobbies aside from his dogs. He is interested in Georgiana only to the extent that she can provide him with male heirs.
Wouldn’t you know it, the one thing he asks of her is the one thing she has trouble with. After a few years the couple has three daughters — two of their own and one fathered by the Duke in an illicit affair before his marriage — but no sons. The Duke’s lack of compassion for Georgiana is conveyed humorously (I assume intentionally) when she goes into labor the first time in the middle of a royal party. She’s screaming in agony offstage while the Duke is raising a glass to toast what he hopes will be the next Duke of Devonshire, oblivious to her pain.
Georgiana becomes known for her fashion sense and her outspokenness on political issues. She befriends Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell), a young widow who shares her free-spiritedness, and invites her to stay at the manor for a while. This makes it convenient for the two ladies to pal around, and also for the Duke to have an affair with Lady Elizabeth. Heck, Elizabeth is so randy, she even tries to engage in some hot duchess-on-duchess action with Georgiana! Spicy!
Georgiana’s own affections, meanwhile, are aimed at Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who is younger than the Duke and, unlike the Duke, actually fond of Georgiana. But while her husband is free to commit all the adultery he wants with whomever he wants, Georgiana is unable to study Grey’s anatomy without causing great consternation and fury at home. Life is unfair.
That is the theme, more or less, of “The Duchess”: Georgiana is trapped in a loveless marriage and is unable to explore her real feelings. Women in her day, especially those with titles, were oppressed and isolated. True enough — but “The Duchess” gets carried away with it. The Duke’s treatment of Georgiana is hilariously cold and unfeeling; Fiennes’ performance renders him cartoonish. And as for the Duchess herself, Knightley is merely sleepwalking through yet another period piece, bringing none of the enthusiasm or depth that she provided in “Pride & Prejudice” or “Atonement.”
Directed by British filmmaker Saul Dibb and adapted from Amanda Foreman’s book “Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire,” the film has pretty costumes and ornate set decorations but not much substance or intrigue. Even the title is generic: This could almost be about any duchess, anywhere. The story is the same every time, and this film barely even tries to distinguish itself.
C (1 hr., 45 min.; )