Spread out like a vast serving of pretty-looking desserts that have all the satisfaction of artificial whipped cream, "The Duchess" is a lumbering number that takes its identity as a costume drama quite literally: How many outfits, and how well Keira Knightley wears them, are the only things that matter.
Knightley portrays the famous, and infamous, Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, as a bird in a gilded cage – in other words, a lot like Princess Diana, that other Spencer. Married off to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) and quickly realizing that he has all the warmth of a starchy rag left out to dry too long, Georgiana simply can't accept her social role as a loveless babymaker.
There's enough here for a kind of drama, but director Saul Dibb (whose feature debut, "Bullet Boy," hinted at an exciting filmmaker who's now gone AWOL) stages it all like a paint-by-numbers replication of past costume epics. Georgiana's passions define her, and her realization that her old boy toy Charles (Dominic Cooper) really does love her should work as an explosion on screen. Instead, it's just another plot turn in a chain of turns that spin Georgiana's character around like a top.
This, however, nicely serves the purposes of costume designer Michael O'Connor, who decorates Knightley like a creature best looked at and not touched. While the film strives to present Georgiana as a woman with a mind of her own – she uses her popularity among the masses to speak on the hustings during Charles's campaign for parliamentary office – she's reduced to an object of beauty, and then, of pity.
The most pitiful matter, though, is Fiennes, who looks as if he's eaten a pile of sour orange peel as preparation for his role. While the duke must be some sort of monster for Georgiana to live with, the point of the tale's tragedy is that he is as much a prisoner of the British system of inheritance as a beneficiary of it. The only thing that comes across on screen is that Fiennes looks stuck, unhappy, and uninspired. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity, and thematic material.)
• The Monitor's regular critic, Peter Rainer, is on vacation.