W hile watching The Duchess, you're likely to be caught up in its stunning visual grandeur, its palpable feel for life among 18th century British nobles, its sense of evil lurking beneath the veneer of so many characters.
Factor in that it's "based on a true story" and occasionally peopled with recognizable historical figures, and The Duchess has the feel of an Important Film.
That feeling is fleeting, however. Costumes and scenery aside, it's soon apparent that The Duchess is really just a soap opera, but such a beautifully crafted one that this realization brings only a slight letdown. The story is compelling from the first moments until the last, and the hopelessness of the title character's plight is heartbreaking.
It's not great storytelling — the narrative sometimes hops and skips rather than flows — but it flitters tantalizingly around the cliches of its genre, then veers off just when we think we know what's coming.
Keira Knightley is Georgiana, a teenager given in an arranged marriage to the coldhearted Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The duke wants a wife for one purpose only: to provide him an heir. He openly turns to other women, including a lover who moves into the couple's home and lives there for many years.
Georgiana becomes a celebrity, sort of the Princess Diana of her day. But what makes her story so powerful is that she herself is ultimately powerless. She can never aspire to triumph, merely to cope. She tries to negotiate a dignified life for herself but continually runs into the reality that, as an 18th century woman, she has no power or possessions with which to do so. Her victory is in her survival, but it ends up being much more subtly and profoundly inspirational than the climax of a standard underdog movie.
Knightley's quite good in her role, and Fiennes is okay. But Hayley Atwell, as the duke's lover, and Dominic Cooper, as future prime minister Charles Grey, almost outshine the stars.
Marty Clear can be reached at mclear@ tampabay.rr.com.