Marie Antoinette sans the Strokes. The imprisonment of European female royalty — the arranged marriages, the constant surveillance, the pressure for propriety — is a paradox for Georgiana (Knightley), Duchess of Devonshire and high-fashion spokesperson for the Whig party. While Georgiana advocates for liberty, she remains oppressed at home. Her husband the Duke (Fiennes) repeatedly chastises her for neglecting her “duty” to produce a male heir, disappointed even as she gives birth to girl after girl, and raises the illegitimate daughter he sired with the maid as her own.
Fiennes, these days, is probably best known for his role as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, and his portrayal as the wizard antichrist is slightly more nuanced than his take on the Duke, an unfaithful hypocrite who threatens violence if the Duchess should pursue her feelings for Whig politician and childhood friend Charles Grey (Cooper), while installing his own mistress, Lady Spencer (Rampling), and her sons in the castle. Spencer being, naturally, Georgiana’s former best friend. Whew. Add some more cleavage and Fabio and this all sounds like a proper bodice ripper. But when it comes time to act on her impulses, Georgiana, a woman in 18th-century England, has few options, all of them awful. Her high profile keeps her every move in the public consciousness: She is followed at events by paparazzi illustrators, and every article of clothing she wears is an instant fashion trend. Sound familiar?
The film invites you to apply Georgiana’s predicament to her relative Princess Diana’s life, but the labored similarities make no coherent feminist point. Georgiana is no victim of media exposure, but a skilled manipulator of her own celebrity broken by an unbearable private life. Her public triumphs quickly pale in comparison to her homefront defeats, but neither seems overly grand. The Duchess avoids neat resolution or typical historic grandeur, perhaps to its own detriment. The elaborate costumes and polished sets beg for large-scale statements and epic macro-narratives; we’re instead given a relatively quiet and occasionally sexy meditation on a sole woman’s oppression and eventual destruction by ignorance, with any parallels to the present day left ambiguous and largely unexplored.