Antiquated Antics Beg a Hefty Dusting

Making privy the gilded story of an aristocrat magically endowed with a liberal conscience, Saul Dibb’s adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s best-selling biography limits itself as a period piece, overly reliant on tailored costumes and a conventional narrative that lacks any underlying substance. Set in a baroque milieu of palatial galas glowing with ornate architecture and ambiance, Georgiana Spencer’s neo-classical values contrast with her surroundings and associates yet fail to inspire the same audacity in her director.

Wedded to the prime investor of the pseudo-progressive Whig Party, “The Duchess” follows the bellicose years of marriage between Georgiana (Keira Knightley) and her fiendishly curt husband, the famed Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Forced to bear the burdens and bastard children of her cheating spouse in an era where “rule of thumb” isn’t yet an idiom, Georgina manages to maintain her celebrity persona with poise while dabbling in gambling and alcohol, with bouts of addiction on the side. Capping off her gloriously contractual arrangement, she is unable to produce a male heir, which only opens up the marriage to 18th century Big Love with another woman who potentially can.

Unfortunately, Georgiana’s 21st century incarnate is a saccharin actress who performs her stage direction — aghast — in nearly every scene as if she had sad hiccups, her mouth slightly agape and eyes on the edge of tearing every time. Throughout the film, Knightley lacks the aplomb and finesse of Cate Blanchett or the refined Helen Mirren while altogether void of Kirsten Dunst’s youthful mirth. Dolled up in a plethora of buoyant gowns and anglo-headresses, she doesn’t far surpass an anachronistic version of herself, fisting brandy instead of beer.

For all its “polite” dialogue and passive-aggressive, pretty-English discourse, Dibb’s style of directing doesn’t know the meaning of subtlety, repeatedly beating the audience with plot development by holding an image for five long seconds or zooming until one object fills the entire screen, in case we had any doubts about what we were supposed to be looking at.

Shooting in 1940s melodramatic form, he fills his narrative not only with heavy-handed storytelling but cookie-cutter arthouse filmmaking: pastoral panning, abundant symmetrical compositions and interior scenes framed by windows, doors and any other rectangular object in the room. Pacing is slow to moderate and although his craftsmanship isn’t poor, Dibb often resorts to faux artistry and imitation techniques.

Comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s 2006 number about the blue-blooded Marie Antoinette will undoubtedly surface, yet two things chiefly differ.

While “Antoinette” didn’t suffer from the same aesthetic deficit, her heroine never found the political outlet Spencer’s does. If indeed Spencer is a more precise precursor to the modern woman, battered by inequalities and defined by her gender role, then she aptly dissents through her political involvement.