She married a titled peer of England decades older than herself, and her sole job was to produce sons. She set the fashions and stumped for progressive causes. She was immensely popular with the common folk even as her husband busied himself with a mistress. She died before her time.
Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales? Close, but not quite. The woman at the center of "The Duchess," a lavish but glassy period drama, is Diana's distant relation Georgiana Spencer, who as the Duchess of Devonshire held sway over Georgian England during the late 18th century. Saul Dibb's film, adapted from a book by Amanda Foreman, never makes the Princess Di parallel explicit, but it doesn't have to. The popular narrative in both cases is the same: a gifted and beautiful noblewoman who longs to be more than a breeder and who suffers for her society's cramped expectations. The Spencers are England's way of lashing itself with guilt.
Georgiana is played by Keira Knightley in a strong, vibrant performance that has more going on in it than the script. When we meet the soon-to-be duchess, she's a brilliant young thing, shining with entitlement and possibilities. She doesn't blink twice when her mother (Charlotte Rampling) announces an engagement to the much older William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, because this is what she has been born for. Glamour and endlessly wide lawns spread before her.
Tough luck: The Duke is a boor, played by Ralph Fiennes in a touching impersonation of an empty suit. He finds it easier to talk to his hunting dogs than to a woman - this is to be expected. His brutal conduct in bed is not.
The movie presents the Cavendishes as a spectacular mismatch, especially as Georgiana sets about charming the nation with her kindnesses, her wit, and her towering hairdos (this was the era between the American and French revolutions, and the Duchess felt the need to keep up with the Pompadours). She befriends the playwright Sheridan (Aidan McArdle) and the sly politico Charles Fox (Simon McBurney), gladly using what later generations would call her celebrity brand name status to push for Whig social reforms.
She is, in other words, something akin to a modern woman - another 150 years and Georgiana might have run for office herself - and the movie's tragedy is that the Duke finds his own wife a threat to the order of things. Fiennes gives us an awkward, childlike man whom power has rendered both dangerous and untouchable. If Georgiana won't give him sons soon enough, he'll find a woman who will, and too bad if it's her best friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell).
At a certain point, "The Duchess" stops attending to the topiary and becomes a women's melodrama instead, Georgiana raging against her destiny in a succession of really incredible gowns. Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's a handsome young stick named Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) who represents True Love and who will someday, long after the credits have rolled, become prime minister of England. There are misbegotten infants, wronged motherhood, and cruel fate, and it all seems to be unfurling at a distance.
I'm not sure why "The Duchess" doesn't wholly succeed, because the pieces are all there and they're very watchable. The film makes an interesting comparison with the recent "The Other Boleyn Girl," which was a lousier movie but a lot more fun. This one, by contrast, is too corseted to get off on the juicier aspects of British historical drama - a genre which only exists in the first place to let us scorn all that opulence while wallowing in it.
And perhaps Knightley is too decorous as Georgiana, where an actress willing to risk the vulgar might have broken through the film's gorgeous, waxen surface to connect on a visceral level. If you look at Georgiana Spencer Cavendish the way the movie certainly doesn't want you to, she's a spoiled ninny with ridiculous hair who married a thug and who ran up massive debts while the poor starved. Where's the surprise in something the tabloids feed us every day?