Throw Keira Knightley in a corset, and she seems perfectly at home, so at the very least The Duchess has a basic competency and professionalism about it. That’s pretty much the best thing you can say about this Period Epic 101 drama from British TV director Dibb, who hits all the expected beats but adds no flavor or personality to his story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Knightley), a sort of proto-feminist who greatly influenced the politics and fashion of the late 18th century but was trapped in her marriage to the cold, manipulative Duke (Fiennes, bringing a bit of Voldemort to the role).
Eager to participate in the political sphere despite not having the right to vote, Georgiana campaigns for the Whig politicians her husband finances but can’t stand to talk to, soaking up the rhetoric of freedom and even delivering some of her own. That rhetoric never carries over into her personal life, though, where she is confined by law and tradition to remain the Duke’s willing servant, punished for her initial inability to bear him a son and heir. Even when she makes a friend in Lady Elizabeth Foster (Atwell), she loses that relationship to her husband, who takes Elizabeth as his mistress and forces Georgiana to tolerate the three of them living together, while she’s forbidden from seeing her own great love, Charles Grey (Cooper).
Dibb and his two co-writers are far more concerned with all this tiresome drawing-room melodrama than they are with Georgiana’s influence on society, where she was revered not only as a political heavyweight but also as a fashion icon (she designed her own audacious outfits). Her penchant for gambling and rabble-rousing gets only a few token scenes, but the back-and-forth of betrayal with the Duke is rehashed endlessly.
Knightley brings a fierceness to her performance that keeps the movie from feeling entirely rote, but it’s disappointing to read the standard what-happened-next title cards at the end and realize that the filmmakers left off the rest of this intriguing political figure’s life because her domestic affairs ceased to be sufficiently soap-operatic.