"The Duchess" is not a bad movie. It's also not a good one. While the principal actors, score and production design all seem to belong to a truly great cinematic effort, the script and direction and particularly the editing all belong to an overblown TV miniseries, and it's in this undecidedness that "The Duchess" really loses sight of what it's trying to be.
Georgiana Spencer's (Knightley) marriage is arranged at a very young age, by her cold and social-climbing mother (Rampling), to the distant and older Duke of Devonshire (Feinnes). When she realises that A. he's a faithless bore with more interest in his two Great Danes than in herself and their daughters, and B. she's stuck with him, Georgiana embarks on a series of extramarital dalliances of her own, in the hope that they will ultimately lead her to the happiness she is denied in her married life.
So much for the plot. The acting standard is generally very high, with nods to Kiera Knightley, Ralph Feinnes and Dominic Cooper as Georgiana's politician lover Charles Grey. All give strong performances, with both Knightley and Feinnes proving they can rise above typecasting (while still being typecast) and turn clunky dialogue into enjoyable performance. Charlotte Rampling is believable and menacing as the dutiful and ambitious mother, and the rest of the cast is there to provide fairly straightforward window dressing. Nobody stands out as particularly bad - although, by the same token, nobody is particularly memorable, either.
The script's a mess. There's little tension and very few moments of engaging drama, and for me, "The Duchess" never once came together to be more than the sum of its parts. The production design is exquisite and the score is beautiful - but Saul Dibb's direction is too flat and stagey to make these audio-visual elements work together to forward our connection with the storyline. "The Other Boleyn Girl" was a bad movie too, but at least that had an undeniable visual charisma - for the most part, the overall visual feel of "The Duchess" has been seen before, and done better.
The editing could also have done with a rethink before this one went to cinemas, at 110 minutes "The Duchess" isn't the longest film ever - but thanks to the turgid pacing around the film's mid-point it certainly begins to feel that way.
And what exactly is this movie? Is it a biopic? It seems to concentrate on too short a window to be considered such (those kids never age!). Is it a romantic melodrama? There's little romance, Georgiana and Charles' affair is over quickly and seems perfunctory. Is it a social commentary? There's not a wide enough cross-section of characters or experiences to justify this title. Unfortunately (for the viewer, at least), "The Duchess" has a hard time making its mind up and doesn't ever fully explore any aspect of the plot - the result is an uneven mishmash of genre and storyline that made me disengage from the characters at an early point.
All in all, I find I can't recommend this. It's got some lovely acting with beautiful sets and music, masked and robbed of their effectiveness by a boring script and pedestrian pacing. "The Duchess" doesn't stand up to such efforts as "The Age of Innocence" and "Dangerous Liaisons", and on its own is frustrating - it could have been so much better than it is. Still, if you want slow-boiled costume drama you might find enough meat on its bones to keep watching - and this is the sort of movie that the Academy awards with Oscars - but really, it's just a little bit too boring to be worthwhile.