There was a time when Englands greatest export was Lara Croft, a public school-educated toff with a la-di-dah accent, impossibly smooth skin and expressionless eyes. Arguably that role has now been passed over to Keira Knightley, whose latest film The Duchess sees her once again called upon to be an ambassador of everything English.
We meet Georgiana (Knightley) on the eve of her engagement to the Duke of Devonshire, being promised love, children and happiness. But the Duke (played by an unfussily cool Ralph Fiennes) proves to be a distant man more interested in his dogs than her. With her awfully big adventure floundering, she finds solace in her twin interests of fashion and politics.
The latter and a particular interest in the freedom of the vote leads her to a reunion with childhood flame Mr Grey (Cooper) and what starts as a political alliance blooms into love. But when she tries to bring her affair out into the open in the face of her husbands own flagrant infidelity, she finds that the bars of her world are much more robust than they first appeared.
At first sight, The Duchess is a bodice-ripper concerned with the heaving bosoms of the aristocracy. But beneath the huge wigs and flouncy dresses is a story built on themes of confinement and liberation: both in Georgianas own life but also those of the people around her her friend Bess (Atwell), looking for a way to be with her children despite a brutal husband, and her husband, constrained by society to maintain appearances and produce a male heir.
What makes Georgiana an interesting heroine is that in all this is that shes an idealist and a nave, whose misfortunes are almost entirely a result of not understanding the rules by which everyone around her is playing. The effect is a little like that of an unreliable narrator: having her view of events in the fore-front makes the story sometimes strange, not least her eventual truce with the Duke, who is presented a callous monster but who, on closer inspection, is something more complex.
The script is surprisingly witty with plenty of sarcasm and irony buried under the formal turns of phrase: unlike Georgiana its a lot cleverer than it first appears, and there are several inventive moments in amongst the usual scenes of dancing and after-dinner speeches. Fiennes is on particularly fine form and although his laconic Duke is mostly in the background he still imbues his every word with a weary excellence.
Knightley, however, is back to pre-Atonement form, wielding the same sulky pout and posh nothingness as her Pirate Elizabeth, last seen At Wits End. The camera tries to claw emotional depth and complexity from her polished features and dead-eye stare but, presumably in the interests of keeping the tweenage core audience in the loop, everything more subtle than a pout or a frown has been stripped away.
Sold as Knightley being as English as Oxford and sandwiches, via a spurious connection to Princess Di, The Duchess is a sort of Sex and the Corset: affairs, bonking and discussions of men, marriage and motherhood set amongst a bewildering array of hats and dresses. But scratch beneath the surface and theres something a lot richer and interesting than all those Hampton Court interiors.