A lot of people think of British period drama as stuffy and boring, a reputation it occasionally does something to deserve, but history is anything but dull, and if you were under the impression that the past was a place of strong moral values and happy marriages that has given way to our current immoral society full of single parents and extramarital affairs, think again. Consider the subject of the life of Georgiana Spenser Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley).
Married young by her mother (Charlotte Rampling, in a wonderfully controlled performance) to William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), the foremost peer of the realm, she finds quickly that her husband (who she met only twice beforehand) is a cold and distant fellow who is only interested in a male heir. Already tasked to mother his bastard daughter Charlotte, she gives birth to two daughters, to the disgust of the Duke, who has a series of mistresses that she tolerates. The Duchess becomes a social marvel, hobnobbing with Whig politicians like Charles James Fox (Simon McBurney) and Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, later 2nd Earl Grey and Prime Minister) and politician/esteemed playwright Richard Sheridan (Aidan McArdle), whose "School for Scandal" was based heavily on the Cavendishes' marriage. She eventually finds a close friend in Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster (Hayley Atwell), and invites her to live with them, which turns out to have dangerous consequences when the Duke initiates an affair with her, and refuses to expel her. She then finds herself living in a forced menage a trois (subtle humour found in the three of them eating silent breakfasts together). Understandably, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Grey.
The dramatic core of "The Duchess" is an examination of the limited social prospects for women in this period (though, as an aside, one imagines a great many poor women from this period would gladly enter a loveless marriage to live like Georgiana does), and their limited legal rights. Both Bess and Georgiana face adulterous husbands who hold over them the prospect of never seeing their children again as a price of leaving; getting her children back is, indeed, Bess's motive for embarking on her affair with the Duke, who, as a powerful lord, is easily able to finagle it. Georgiana, likewise, initially decides to choose freedom over her daughters, but cannot. The Duke, for his part, is a controlling fellow, raised in a very patriarchal worldview; Fiennes expertly shows his emotional straitjacketing, which at odd moments make him mildly sympathetic, though he mostly is not, particularly at the conception of his long-desired son. He's normally at a loss when called to talk about feelings.
Keira Knightley, once again travelling back in time to the 18th century (her fifth or sixth visit, I believe), does a fine job as Georgiana. Hayley Atwell is likewise very good as Bess, a character who walks the finest line between sympathy and dislike from the audience. There's a curious scene included which seems to suggest at a rather different dynamic between the two women, though this doesn't go anywhere. Fiennes, as mentioned, does his best in a rather staid role. Dominic Cooper as the young semi-radical Grey is suitable, though not of the same calibre as the other actors. McBurney and McArdle are scene-stealers in small parts as Georgiana's sympathetic male acquaintances. The set design, as one would expect, is stunning.
While not in the highest tier of British period pieces, this is a fine addition to the genre.