Based on Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, Saul Dibb's costume drama tells how Princess Diana's 18th-century ancestor (played here by Keira Knightley)—a naive ingénue married off in her teens to a fornicating icy stiff (get the parallel?)—grew into a politically sophisticated woman. Cruising lightly over Georgiana's activism, Dibb firmly turns the spotlight on her love life, in which she must come to terms with a ménage à trois at home and a passionate love affair with Charles, Earl of Grey (an incongruously laddish Dominic Cooper), a future prime minister and namesake of the posh tea. But for all its frisky high jinks, brocaded homes, and creamy bosoms, The Duchess is a tragedy about the terrifying vulnerability of even the richest women in a society that deprives them of property rights. As a tale of mature self-sacrifice, the movie would be almost unbearably moving were it not for Knightley's insubstantial performance, which allows her to be fatally upstaged by Ralph Fiennes—who, despite having played many a stiff quite stiffly, has bags of fun here playing Georgiana's husband: a jerk, but also a man of his time who's not oblivious to the happiness of the women in his life.
Saul DibbKeira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, Angus McEwan, Richard McCabe, Mercy Fiennes TiffinJeffery HatcherMichael Kuhn, Gabrielle TanaParamount Vantage