Directed by Saul Dibb. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Dibb. With Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper and Hayley Atwell.
Autumn is the time for haute-monde hanky-panky, and if Cate Blanchett can't do the regal intriguing, Knightley will. Last year Toronto had both actresses: Cate in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Keira in Atonement. The latter won the rapter attention of critics and moviegoers, so she's back for another try as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the 18th century aristocrat with a mean husband and an idealistic lover. Fiennes is the swine, nearly imploding from cramped distemper; he could be one of the villains played by Alan Rickman, but with an interior sneer. And Cooper is the swain, budding Whig politico Charles Grey. Their various adulteries are played out like a gavotte one has seen a few too many times.
This is less a history lesson than a display of sumptuous real estate: Knightley's face and form, no less than Somerset House (which serves as the exterior of the Devonshire castle) and the stately buildings of Bath. So honesty compels us to note that Cooper isn't handsome enough to share a bed scene with the lead actress. (Can't Brit cinema technicians somehow clone the young Colin Firth?) Atwell, who had a supporting role in the recent Brideshead Revisited, is much more becoming as Bess Foster, an intimate to both the Duke and the Duchess. Her soft, dark features instantly convey a personality no less warm than it is determined. A sure proof of her budding screen charisma: she holds the viewer's eye even in her scenes with Knightley. Atwell may not be as conventionally stunning, but there's more going on inside.