Lady Diana Spencer was the direct descendant of glamorous, trend-setting Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, who was famously painted by Gainsborough. Fittingly, Georgiana’s story begins in 1774 at Althorp, the family estate on which the late Princess of Wales is buried.
As a teenage socialite, Georgiana is betrothed to the much older William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), whom she barely knows. Assured by her manipulative mother (Charlotte Rampling) that the union is most advantageous, Georgiana subsequently has daughters but is unable to produce the son/heir her husband covets. As a result, she becomes trapped in a public menage a trios, since her world-weary husband takes her opportunistic best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), as his mistress at Devonshire House. Georgiana then seeks distraction in drink, drugs, gambling and an illicit affair with Lord Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the future Prime Minister.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and director Saul Dibb from Amanda Foreman’s best-selling biography, the film focuses far more on the visuals – the costumes and frippery of the period – than the inherent drama of Georgianaâ€™s compelling dilemma, not unlike Sofia Coppola’ “Marie Antoinette” (coincidentally, Georgiana was Marie Antoinette’s close friend.), barely grazing over the Duchess’s public support of Grey’s anti-slavery, pro-American, conservative Whig party.
Vivacious Keira Knightley is seductive but, as scripted, she is hardly the eloquent woman of letters described by Foreman as “a potent mix of charisma and vulnerability that made her irresistible to men and women alike.” Instead, she seems like a spoiled simpleton. While Ralph Fiennes is appropriately dour, plump Dominic Cooper is less than dashing as her ardent suitor. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Duchess” is a frivolous 4, diminishing its impact.