The Duchess - Keira Knightley plays passionate 18th-century aristocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Keira Knightley unfailingly comes in for a drubbing from some quarters whatever she does, but she earned some of the best reviews of her career for her starring role in The Duchess, a sumptuous historical drama based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling historical biography. Even critic Mark Kermode revised his habitual dismissal of “Ikea” Knightley as “a purveyor of teakily flat-packed performances”, declaring himself impressed by “her sympathetically long-suffering turn” as Georgiana Spencer, the 18th-century aristocrat whose turbulent love life has uncanny parallels with her remote descendant, Princess Diana (her great-great-great-great niece).

The Duchess - Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, & Ralph Fiennes as her cold fish of a husband, the Duke

Director Saul Dibb and his leading actors strive heroically to make us care for the story’s cast of toffs, with even Ralph Fiennes’ cold fish of a husband coming in for a measure of sympathy. But the film struggles to shape Georgiana’s messy life into the type of graceful narrative arc that makes a popular movie satisfying. It’s a problem that similarly hamstrings the recently released period biopic The Young Victoria, which throws up some fascinating historical nuggets but fails to fashion a compelling narrative out of the monarch’s early life.

The Devil’s Whore - Andrea Riseborough as Angelica Fanshawe and Michael Fassbender as Rainsborough

Here, I think, British cinema could take a leaf from the history book of Channel 4’s four-part costume drama The Devil’s Whore, which is coincidentally also released on DVD today. Instead of playing safe, writer Peter Flannery (of Our Friends in the North fame) invented the fictional character of his story’s young aristocratic protagonist, Andrea Riseborough’s Angelica Fanshawe, and had her rubbing shoulders with real figures from history, such as Dominic West’s Oliver Cromwell and Peter Capaldi’s King Charles I. Flannery’s approach has its drawbacks, but the viewer is far more likely to be hooked by Angelica’s made-up journey through the turmoil of the English Civil War than by The Duchess and The Young Victoria’s hobbled histories. (Released 16th March)

Why does Keira Knightley arouse such loathing? Read more.

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