This sumptuous, confident telling of an 18th-century duchess's story may spark some welcome interest in our British history
“There were three people in her marriage.” Sound familiar? It’s one of the taglines being used to promote The Duchess, the new costume drama based on Amanda Foreman’s best-selling and highly praised biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire — 18th-century fashion plate, Whig heroine, wronged wife and all-round darling of the people. But, of course, we’ve heard it somewhere before.
The producers of this film tell us that they were keen not to retell the story of Diana, Princess of Wales through the prism of her illustrious ancestor Georgiana. If that’s true, they should have conveyed the message more effectively to their advertising team, which seems to have gone all out to do just that.
Images of Diana have been all over the trailers, a ghostly but still doe-eyed presence looking on as Keira Knightley flits from carriage to balcony to aristocratic ménage à trois. “Two women related by ancestry .?.?. united by destiny .?.?. history repeats itself,” we are told.
Well, two of those claims don’t really hold up, but never mind; if linking Diana to her great-great-great-great aunt in this way gets the non-history-reading audiences in, it will be worth it, simply because it is only through TV series and films such as this that the younger members of the local multiplex audience will learn anything much about their own history now.
That might seem to be a counsel of despair, until one remembers that a significant minority recently identified Churchill as being the name of a talking dog in an insurance commercial. Historical dramas such as The Duchess are hugely important. Having myself been enormously inspired by the rash of ruff and hosiery movies I saw as a child at my local suburban Odeon, I don’t underestimate the part that popular culture can play in conveying something deeper, and ensuring that it stays in the public imagination.
So one should sometimes overlook liberties taken in the service of something higher. In 1972, for example, Hal Wallis’s Mary, Queen of Scots had Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) and Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) meeting in secret (and not just once, but twice, which really seems to be pushing your luck). When I got round to Antonia Fraser’s biography, I discovered that of course such incidents never took place. But the point is that it was the film which brought me to the book in the first place.
The Duchess concentrates on Georgiana’s marriage to the stone-cold Duke (played here with his trademark petulance by Ralph Fiennes), the much talked-about domestic arrangement she tolerated with his mistress, her best friend Bess Foster (portrayed by the superb newcomer Hayley Atwell) and her subsequent affair with Earl Grey. The latter’s Whiggish wig is filled by Dominic Cooper, whom you might last have seen as the beach hunk in Mamma Mia (or maybe not).
Having been primed beforehand, parallels with Charles, Diana and Camilla keep popping into one’s head, helped along by much of the dialogue. “He must be the only man in England,” someone says of the Duke, “who’s not in love with his wife.”
The film also has the odd ingratiating anachronism. Early on, when the Duke complains about the intricacies of women’s clothing as he undresses his new bride, she protests: “It’s just our way of expressing ourselves.” No 18th-century woman, from dairymaid to duchess, could have said such a thing. Besides, it rather goes against the whole dynamic of the story, which is of a strong woman defying the rigid conventions that were, if anything, symbolised by the almost prison-like structure of their clothing.
While my companion at the screening flinched at this kind of thing, I found that I could live with it. Because, taken as a whole, this is a grand, glamorous and unapologetic film. Forced echoes of and allusions to the present notwithstanding, it has absolute confidence that its story is one worth telling. The characters are well written, and even if you pretty much know what’s going to happen to them, you find yourself caring about how. And I, for one, am not above a bit of excitement at learning the odd new fact: I had no idea, for example, that Sheridan’s The School for Scandal drew on the Devonshires’ marriage.
Put simply, it makes the past look beautiful, like a place you would be happy to visit. The director, Saul Dibb, who made the TV adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, has eschewed the bleached-out, rather threadbare look of some recent costume dramas and given his film the full-blooded treatment. It is at once sensual and majestic. The Naval College at Greenwich is again pressed into service for London street scenes, but the film’s particular sense of confidence and opulence is conveyed by the use of some of this country’s finest houses and urban architecture. Chatsworth, Holkham Hall, Kedleston Hall and Bath’s Royal Crescent should all see a rise in visitors after this film.
I’ve said before in this column that Knightley is not one of my favourite actresses; she is too model-like for me, and there is that strange, jagged grin. Judging by the portraits of Georgiana by Gainsborough and Reynolds, she also lacks the Duchess’s curves. But she carries it off. As her duchess sweeps through grand entrances and up marble stairs, it never looks for a moment as if she shouldn’t be there.
This is, I think, the best thing Knightley has done. Her name means a lot to the readers of Heat magazine, and it will draw them into the cinema. Some of them, maybe just a few, might find that their interest in the past is pricked enough to look further. If so, she would also have performed a small but valuable service.