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Duchess, The


Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling

Director: Saul Bibb

It must have seemed like a gift: the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Princess Diana's great-great-great-great aunt, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage - with Knightley, who even looks a bit like Diana and has the same patrician carriage, in the title role.

And the film loses no chance to underline the comparison. Its selling line is: There were three people in her marriage. And yet, despite very good performances, especially from Fiennes as the cold, uncommunicative Duke, and from Knightley, great drama eludes the film. Too often its affairs are slow and lumpy - the movie has no fire in its belly.

At 17, Georgiana's hopes of a happy marriage, 'arranged' by her mother (Rampling), are soon dashed. The Duke demands only two things, loyalty and a son, and prefers to rut with his maids than pay court to his wife. Since Knightley (as presumably was Georgiana) is drop dead gorgeous, this is something the film is at a loss to explain.

Still, Fiennes accurately draws this dead fish of a man, humiliating G (as she's known) from the start by bringing his illegitimate daughter into their household. 'It's only a little girl, G,' he scolds. 'It's not the end of the world.'

Fleeing from such indifference, G becomes the darling of society, and a powerful figure behind the scenes in politics. Of her ostrich feather hat, she tells her followers: 'There are only two specimens of this creature. One has landed on top of my head. The other is running for office with the Tory party!'

She befriends beaten wife Bess (Atwell), but the woman, seeking a haven for her three sons, soon becomes the Duke's mistress. When G too takes a lover, in Earl Grey (a below-par Cooper), she discovers to her cost that it's one rule for the husband and another for the wife: G is threatened with the loss of her children.

Too much tragedy, alas, heavily administered, sinks this well-written film as a top-grade attraction.

David Quinlan

UK 2008. UK Distributor: Pathe. Colour by deluxe.
110 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 01 Sep 2008