The Duchess - Keira Knightley

Why does Keira Knightley arouse such loathing? Type the words ‘I hate Keira Knightley’ into Google and blog after blog pops up to denounce her for being too skinny, for sounding too posh, for pouting too much, for having funny teeth, for acting in so many frock flicks, or for just being downright irritating.

And it seems to be women, in the main, who are doing the hating. “If you want to befriend a woman,” a Guardian columnist suggested a while ago, “ask her the question, ‘What do you think of Keira Knightley?’ In the resulting torrent of bile and loathing, you will bond. She will say, ‘I hate Keira Knightley. She’s such a terrible actress. She looks like a stoat. And those teeth! She makes my fists itch! It is a Pavlovian response. Hatred of Keira is like menstruation; all women share it.”

The Duchess - Keira Knightley

“This stoat can act”

To be fair, the Guardian’s Tanya Gold goes on to turn her diatribe on its head and admit, “Sisters, we must acknowledge that our hatred is not about her. This stoat can act.” But if it is the pout or the frocks that put you off, then you will probably want to avoid The Duchess, in which Keira wears a series of gorgeous frocks and runs through her full repertoire of smirks and simpers, as well as the gamut of grins, grimaces and polite moues.

But if you can look past the dresses and the sullen lips, then you have to admit that Keira delivers another solid performance.

The movie is based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling historical biography about Georgiana Spencer, the 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire, whose story has uncanny parallels with the life of her distant descendant, Princess Diana (her great-great-great-great niece).

“A cold fish”

Like Diana, Keira’s Georgiana is married off at a young age to an older husband, played by Ralph Fiennes as a cold fish who shows more emotion towards his dogs than he does towards his wife. Georgiana’s duty is to produce an heir, and she is expected to put up with her husband’s open affair with her best friend, Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell). She seeks an outlet for her frustrations by becoming a public figure, the ‘Queen of Hearts’ of her day, and is adored as the ‘empress of fashion’. Yet after she begins an affair with young Whig politician Charles Grey (Mamma Mia’s Dominic Cooper), her husband forces her to remain in their loveless marriage.

The Duchess - Keira Knightley & Ralph Fiennes

“Impeccably accurate period stockings”

Keira, Ralph and Hayley all act their impeccably accurate period stockings off, finding nuances in their characters that elevate The Duchess from a simple tale of put-upon heroine, heartless husband and scheming mistress, even if the strain of trying to impose a coherent narrative arc on a messy real life means that, ultimately, the movie doesn’t work as well as it might.

As good as Keira is in The Duchess, however, it would be good to see her acting in something other than costume romps. To date, her best performances have been in period films (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, The Edge of Love), and – especially if you add the Pirates of the Caribbean movies – they’ve also been her biggest box-office successes. When she does appear in contemporary dress, as in Domino, she’s usually been mocked for her pains.

Domino - Keira Knightley

“National treasure”

But she should take heart from the example of Kate Winslet, ten years her senior, who is widely seen as a national treasure now that she has escaped from the straitjacket of corsets. We may have to wait a while, though, for Keira to pull off a similar feat. Her next role is set to be playing Cordelia in a screen version of King Lear, alongside Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts. Perhaps the film will turn out to be an edgy, urban take on Shakespeare, but somehow I doubt it.