Long before Jackie O, Edie Sedgwick and Carla Bruni there was Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, the original 'It Girl'. Beautiful, glamorous and respected by all who encountered her, the Duchess became an important player in affairs of the day.
This biopic opens in 18th century England with a 19-year-old Georgiana (Knightley), just as her mother (Rampling) agrees the terms of her marriage to the Duke (Fiennes). In that moment her life changes in ways that she neither expects nor, after a severe dose of hindsight, wants.
Behind the glamour of her new role, lies much heartache. Her frustrated and frustrating husband brings the glamour girl to her knees by delivering hurtful blow by blow accounts of her failure to produce an heir. He justifies his philandering in one cold confession: "As a husband I have fulfilled my obligations but as a wife, you have not."
Georgina's best friend turned foe, Lady Bess, ('Cassandra's Dream's Hayley Atwell) astutely remarks: "The Duke of Devonshire must be the only man in England not in love with his wife." Comparisons between the Duchess (née Spencer) and her great-great-great-great-niece Diana Princess of Wales are not without cause.
The antithesis of Jane Austen's 'Emma', Georgiana takes great pleasure in not only outdoing her fellow females in terms of fashion, family affairs and in social graces but also in beating the boys at their own games: gambling, boozing and politics.
In these recessionary, belt-tightening times it is refreshing to indulge in luxury such as costume designer Michael O'Connor and production designer Michael Carlin lay on in this period piece. Numerous accolades will no doubt be awarded for their worthy efforts.
Knightley is perfectly cast as the self-obsessed, feisty yet focused socialite and Fiennes is ideal as her arrogant, boorish husband.
'Bullet Boy' director Dibb has done an excellent job in this, his fourth feature. He injects much needed humour throughout, allowing his characters to poke-fun at themselves and some of the more ridiculous situations, at least by modern standards, that they find themselves in.
A good friend of Marie Antoinette's, the Duchess suffers from a similar obsession... herself. She's not alone in this affliction as the film is unequivocally one-sided. Considering the fact that she was romantically involved with a future English Prime Minister, Earl Grey (Cooper), there was plenty of scope for more weighty political and cultural content. Also, bearing in mind the poverty of the time, the film could and should have put her 'sufferings' into context.
'The Duchess' is a beautifully produced, well-crafted biopic of a period society girl. Next 'It Girl' in line for the screen? Another famous Georgine gets our vote, Countess Markiewicz.