The thing about The Duchess is that it’s entirely conventional. It’s a genre pic that plays out exactly as you would expect, with the requisite lush art direction and costume porn. The heroine is trapped in a society that doesn’t permit her to marry the one she loves but her big personality allows her to make her mark on society. Normal stuff for bodice-rippers, but ultimately I think this conventional and competent film is pretty good for the genre.

The Duchess is significantly better than the dreadful Elizabeth series. It’s more engrossing and accessible than the usual Jane Austen adaptation. But I think there’s a limit to how much I can like this sort of movie without it taking some risks and trying something different and The Duchess does not. It’s solid and adequate but nothing new.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in the late 18th century. Her marriage to Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) is political with little personal connection between the two. William really just wants a male heir and generally ignores Georgiana otherwise. Her inability to produce an heir sours their relationship further, to the point of occasional physical and emotional brutality. Naturally there’s a strapping young man who captures Georgiana’s heart, Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey. And you already know where this is heading: forbidden love, betrayal, a young woman rebelling against an aristocratic society that prevents her from determining the path of her own life.

I found the public Georgiana more interesting than her private dramas. She was a fashion icon of her time and a very vocal supporter and campaigner for the Whig party, making her a larger public figure than her husband. She was an intelligent woman fairly in tune with her society despite her place in the aristocracy. Maybe I liked these parts because they were a little different. I liked the political scenes more in Elizabeth too, but maybe just as a respite from the mind-numbing personal drama.

Knightley is getting some Best Actress buzz, which I guess is at least better than last year’s buzz for her role in Atonement. She’s gotten quite good at these period pieces and she is good here, though not spectacularly so. If she were to get nominated I would be okay with it though I’d be surprised if there weren’t five performances I end up liking more. Fiennes got even more buzz for his role that mostly required quiet seething punctuated by impressive rage and again I just found him fine. It just wasn’t that interesting. But now he’s going for Supporting Actor for The Reader so his role here will likely move to the back burner. Technical nominations in categories like Costume and Art Direction are expected and deserved.

In movies like this, the heroine generally gets married off to some man who she has little in common with. She’s a romantic, however, and pines after a handsome gentleman who, through class differences, she cannot be with. But she’s a smart woman and despite personal drama she makes her mark on the world. Often her mother is an important supporting character, a realist and strong matriarch who tells the heroine to buck up and get her head out of the clouds because she has certain duties to perform for her husband, country, and/or family. I want to see a movie about that mother for once. Why can’t the heroine be like pretty much every other aristocratic woman of the time and accept her role? Why can’t she understand the politics of marriage and use them in her favor? Why must she spend so much time brooding about love? It’d be nice to have a historical film where the woman can do her thing (lead her country, influence policy, head the royal court/her family, etc…) without spending much of the movie bemoaning her broken heart because, let’s face it, she probably doesn’t know anyone in her social circle who married for love.

I guess when it comes down to it, The Duchess is good assuming the restraints of the genre, but it never challenges those restraints, which I think limits its potential. I can’t help but compare it to Sofia Coppola’s unfairly-derided Marie Anoinette, which tried something different in terms of style, character, and plot. Not everything works in that film, but it’s always interesting and refreshingly different. The Duchess is already solid, I just wish it had some more interesting touches.

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