February 2, 2009 -- This lush costume drama biopic about Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire is loaded with expensive production values and solid performances. Keira Knightley plays the Duchess, Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire, her husband, the only man Georgiana could not seduce, and Hayley Atwell of “Brideshead Revisited” playing Bess Foster, Georgiana's friend, who later became her rival and her husband's lover.
Georgiana's life, loves, triumphs and disappointments in the 18th Century were eerily replayed, almost exactly, in the 20th Century by her descendant, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. This sort of costume drama about class and sexual struggles in repressive English society is nothing new. However, this one is exceptionally well constructed and well acted by all the principles, including Dominic Cooper (“Mama Mia”) as Charles Grey, who plays Georgiana's extra-marital lover. The curious thing about this story is that it is as interesting today as it was back then, despite all the tremendous changes in society that have occurred in the 18, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Things have changed in more than 200 years, but this story is still well outside the norm.
One telling point in the story has Georgiana offering a deal to her husband. He can stay with Bess Foster, who he seems to prefer, and Georgiana can live with her lover, politician Charles Grey. The deal makes a lot of sense, but the Duke has too much pride to give in to logic. The Duke says he doesn't make deals because he holds all the cards. If Georgiana leaves him for Grey, the Duke, the most powerful peer in England, promises to ruin Grey's political career and he will see to it that Georgiana never sees her children again. That is a deal breaker. Nevertheless, Georgiana remains one of the most powerful and influential and popular women of her time, eventually helping Grey to become Prime Minister of England. The remarkable accommodation made by Georgiana, her husband, Grey and Bess Foster makes for a very interesting story. What might be common in southern Utah must have been very much an aberration in 18th Century England. The parallels between Georgiana's topsy turvey life and that of her descendant, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales are remarkable.
Sure, it is a soap opera, complete with political intrigue, extra-marital affairs and polygamy, but it has the advantage of being based on a true story. This film rates a B. It is perhaps notable that The Right Honorable Charles James Fox (played by Simon McBurney of “The Golden Compass”) appears as a key figure both in this movie and in a better one, “Amazing Grace,” where the same historical figure is played by Michael Gambon (“The Good Shepherd”).
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