Set at the end of the eighteenth century, The Duchess is the story of Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), ‘the most fascinating woman of her age‘. But while her beauty and charisma made her name, her extravagant tastes and appetite for gambling and love made her infamous. Married at a young age to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), intimate of ministers and princes, Georgiana found her calling as a fashion icon, a shrewd political operator and darling of the common people. When she delivers two baby girls rather than the expected male heir to the family’s vast estates, the relationship goes from bad to worse.
Married life quickly became a disappointment when Georgiana realised the Duke is more interested in sleeping with the maids and talking to his dogs than he is in her. Her final disillusionment comes when he expects her to mother his illegitimate daughter who comes to live with them. Regardless of her success as a celebrity long before the term was invented, the core of her story was a desperate search for love. From Georgiana’s passionate affairs to the complex marital arrangements with her husband and her best friend, Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), The Duchess is a contemporary tale of fame, notoriety and the search for love.
If the story sounds familiar, the recent media furore surrounding the film’s publicity only added to the stew. Given that Georgiana was a distant relation of Princess Diana Spencer, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, promotional material for the movie sought to emphasise the modern-day connection and sparked outrage by showing pictures of the late Princess. A trailer, now cancelled, juxtaposed images of Knightley’s character and Princess Diana with the words: “The two were related by ancestry and united by destiny.” Knightley herself stepped into the debate by insisting her character should not be compared to the late royal. “I am Georgiana. I am not Diana. The film is not about Diana.” Director Saul Dibb blamed “the marketing men” for the mistake adding “We didn’t want to make any parallels between the two women. It didn’t govern the shooting of the film or the performances.”
Born into relative wealth herself at Althorp House, Georgiana Spencer’s marriage brought her huge public attention making her the queen of fashionable society, alternately fawned upon and caricatured by the press and providing the inspiration for Lady Teazle in Sheridan’s “The School for Scandal.” Allying herself to the politician Charles James Fox (Simon McBurney) she became an important figure in the Whig party, canvassing for their cause in the election of 1784. While her public success concealed a personal life that was fraught with suffering and a sterile marriage, Georgiana embarked on a passionate love affair with Charles Grey (Domnic Cooper), by whom she became pregnant resulting on her being sent into exile by the Duke.
On her return she continued to live with the Duke and Bess Foster for many years in a ménage a trois. The Duchess is based on the biography of Georgiana, written by Amanda Foreman, which won the Whitbread prize for Best Biography in 1997 and stayed on the best-seller lists for months. Producer Gaby Tana snapped up the rights of the book soon after its publication in 1998. Tana called the character of The Duchess ‘extraordinary and inspiring.’ Even though on the surface she seemed to have everything, with her privileges came unseen burdens in a world where things were never quite what they appeared to be. Georgiana was original and smart – a precursor of the modern liberated woman becoming very involved in social change and in politics. Alongside this, however, was the human and contradictory side of the Duchess – a decadent, compulsive gambler who lost millions of pounds.
In the same way she effortlessly inhabited similar period territory in Pride & Prejudice, Knightley again takes the aristocratic role of this great English beauty with ease and style in a nuanced portrayal that fairly nails the enigma Georgiana obviously was. Fiennes too, as the stiff aristo with a rigid public persona competing with his often unsavoury personal life, is equally well cast. And regardless of the protests of the filmmakers, the obvious connection to today’s monarchy is unavoidable – a fact that won’t harm the box office one whit.