A costume drama that has even less support than the many corset-enhanced busts that populate it, "The Duchess" is a very straightforward and surprisingly apathetic variation of the trite melodrama seen before in the worst examples of this genre.
The main thrust of the story involves a young woman pushed into a royal marriage who spends much of the film being either the toast of the social scene, or lambasted and abused for not producing a male heir for her generally disliked husband. As usual with these dramas, the titular Georgiana is a post-modern minded girl frustrated about being stuck in a stifled society where women have barely any freedom and married women are little more than property.
One understands that it is this which probably drew Keira Knightley to the project - the idea of playing a real life aristocrat of whom it could be said planted the first seeds of the feminist movement. It also helps that the story draws a few parallels to the life of Princess Diana Spencer who was distantly related to Georgiana. To be fair Knightley gives it her all in a commendable rather than noteworthy performance. If there is a weakness here it's that she doesn't have the gravitas or ability to genuinely reflect inner turmoil yet for such a role and so never fully conveys emotional depth beyond the obvious.
Part of that could be that writer/director Saul Dibb and the various other scribes seem afraid to let her or any of the other characters breathe. The cold and controlled manner make the unfolding and very predictable emotional revelations ring hollow. The rare moments of rather droll humor or damning statement about the time - such as the loyal servants visibly standing by during a rape - at least add some fire and respite from the otherwise funereal monotone atmosphere pervading the lusciously dressed and gorgeous scenery.
From a production value standpoint it can't be faulted. The costumes are resplendent with Knightley donning increasingly extravagant outfits throughout, and the production makes full use of Chatsworth House and various exteriors to sell itself. Ralph Fiennes is rarely dull as an aloof, forceful man with little consideration for others. Though one could easily play the character as misanthrope with a grudge, Fiennes permeates an indifferent attitude across all his scenes which ultimately make him a bland enigma rather than your garden-variety misogynistic monster.
Supporting roles are decent but not outstanding. The ever-reliable Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana's mother is spiritedly dispassionate and resolute, Hayley Atwell is commendable as a female friend turned mistress who shares an awkward relationship with Georgiana, and Dominic Cooper shows off his main asset (his truly stunning torso) once but otherwise fails to impress as future Prime Minister Charles Gray.
The life of Georgiana is a compelling one and certainly reads far more interesting on paper than it does played out on the screen here. There's a fascinating study to be made of England at the time and of Georgiana's influence in helping to both create and widen the cracks that began to shake up the societal, gender and political rules of the time. Yet "The Duchess" fails to explore that - focusing far too much on the cold accuracy of details than actually emotionally involving the audience in the story. Sumptuous but barren.