More than 200 years before Diana, the Princess of Wales became the darling of fashionistas on opposite sides of the globe, there was her ancestor, Georgiana whose beauty, intelligence, sense of style and melodic spirit garnered her the love, respect and political influence over the common people of London.
As a young woman, Georgiana Spencer was chosen by the older Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, to become his wife and bear him a son, an heir to his throne. Unsuccessful in bearing the Duke a son during the first six years of her marriage, Georgiana devotes her time and energy to the pursuit of her passions; dress designing, gambling and advancement of the Whig political party, during which time she is reunited with Earl Grey, whose childhood unrequited attraction to Georgina was reciprocated in kind.
While on holiday in Bath Georgiana befriends Lady Elizabeth Foster (“Bess”), whose husband has absconded with her three sons. After years of keeping a smile on her face despite a loveless marriage and the Duke’s repeated martial infidelity, Georgiana is reinvigorated by her new friendship, and conspires to have Bess return to Devonshire House. With ulterior motives of their own, the Duke and Bess whole heartedly agree. However shortly thereafter, the lengths to which a mother will go for the sake of her children results in a betrayal of their friendship and Georgiana is subjected to humiliation not unlike that of the People’s Princess. A formidable force in her own right, Georgiana seeks to fulfill her own happiness only to realize like Bess before her, that personal sacrifices must be made for the benefit of one’s true love.
In the film adaptation based on Amanda Foreman’s biography, Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes are two phenomenal talents who bring depth of character to their roles as Duke and Duchess despite the fact that the screenplay, co-written by director Saul Dibb, offers little insight into what really made these characters tick. Hayley Atwell succeeds in displaying the complexities of Bess, both vulnerable and sincere yet deceptively calculating. Dominic Cooper offers a compelling performance as Georgina’s favored lover and charismatic future Prime Minster.
Cinematographer Gyula Pados and production designer Michael Carlin introduce the audience to an unexpectedly bright and beautiful London and a historic Devonshire House, which felt authentic by virtue of location shoots in London and Bath. Further contributing to the realistic feel of the production was the intimate work of costume designer Michael O’Conner; the eclectic hairstyles created by Jan Archibald and the work of makeup designer Daniel Phillips.
This biographical tale, with its fine acting, and clever visual and sentimental recreation of life in 18th century England, is bound to make a fan of even those whose typical fare does not include period films.