The Duchess of period pieces, Keira Knightley, chats about stepping into the role of Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire.
She was hounded by the paparazzi, was a fashion icon of her day and lived in an unhappy marriage that involved another woman. Sound familiar? No, this isn’t the story of the late Princess of Wales, rather one of her ancestors: Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire. The 18th century ‘It Girl’ is the topic of Saul Dibb’s latest movie, based on Amanda Foreman’s best-selling biography. It chronicles the life of Georgiana and her troubled relationship with husband the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Playing the leading lady is Britain’s resident ‘It girl’ Keira Knightley. Having starred in a various period projects (the Pirates trilogy, Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, The Edge of Love), who better to take on the role of ‘The Duchess’? Here, Knightley talks about the film, the costumes, happy endings and that inevitable Diana comparison…
Q: The Duchess is a huge role for a woman and you’re in virtually every scene. Was it a pressure to carry the film?
A: “It was a wonderful challenge but it was completely terrifying. There are much fewer really great female roles then there are for actors so when comes along and you get the opportunity to play it it is absolutelyphenomenal but completely terrifying.”
Q: What was it like recreating the story in some of the real locations where the history unfolded?
A: “I think just being in those enormous houses, particularly for me it helped with the sense of isolation that my character Georgiana was going through. The sheer scale of them and the beauty of them was astounding.”
Q: You’ve done period dramas before but was it a greater leap into the unknown in terms of coming to terms of some of the bizarre etiquette and morals that were operating in this period of history, the late 18th Century?
A: “I think we all felt that we should do research for it and personally I love doing that and it was a wonderful opportunity to find out about 18th century culture and society which I didn’t know about before. We also had Amanda Foreman the writer on set a lot which was fantastic. She was always there to answer questions and she was incredibly supportive as well. Sometimes it was quite terrifying to have the writer there but she was great. We also had an etiquette person come in as well. I think it’s important when you’re doing films like this to know the parameters that you are working in. To know the rules. Then you can choose to break them. As long as the knowledge is there in the first place you can choose what you take and what you don’t.”
Q: The synopsis says that The Duchess has a happy ending. Do you agree with that bearing in mind the Duchess doesn’t end up with the love of her life?
A: “No, I disagree which I think is great. It’s not my place to dictate. I think if you think it’s happy – and some people do – then that’s great. If you don’t, then you don’t. I think that the whole journey for her is one from idealism into reality and I think she gets very much broken down and in the end the whole thing is like a card game. She plays her cards out and no for me she didn’t get a happy ending. She does survive which in itself I suppose is a happy ending. She gets the children. That’s what she gets. She chooses and she compromises. Could she have lived with the guilt if she’d gone of with Gray and given up the kids? I don’t think she could have done. So I don’t know about happy ending but I think that she isn’t brought down by it and she survives and that can only be positive.”
Q: Do you feel any parallels between the story of The Duchess and the story of Princess Diana?
A: “I was 11 when Diana died so I really don’t know what the actual story was so I don’t feel like I can comment on the parallels. I think I was definitely aware of the images. I knew when I was going into it that my character Georgiana was a distant relation but that’s as far as my knowledge goes. I was very much making the film about Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire and I think she’s an interesting enough person to warrant a film completely about her without comparisons. The whole Diana parallel certainly wasn’t a reason for me to make the film.”
Q: You’ve worn all sorts of costumes in your time but are you a bigger fan of the 18th century gowns you wore in this or the football shorts you once donned in Bend It Like Beckham?
A: “I have no plans to go round London in 18th Century costume but equally not football shorts either. The costumes were completely fantastic and obviously she was a very famous fashion icon. They weren’t particularly comfortable. It was very simply the fact that you wear a corset and you can’t catch your breath so any emotions are much more heightened. You can’t calm down so there were very helpful in the portrayal of the character. It took about two and half hours to get ready and we had to be sewn into some of the costumes, which they would have actually been in the 18th Century. Going to the toilet was quite difficult too. I actually didn’t fit into the toilet in the trailer which was quite difficult in itself. Why do I want to share that publicly? I don’t know. I couldn’t get in the cars either with the wigs.”
Q: The suggestion of sexual relationship between Georgian and Bess was an intriguing part of the film…
A: “I was fascinated by the relationship between them. When I read the script for it the first thing about Georgiana that struck me was just how incredibly lonely this woman was. She was constantly surrounded by so many people and yet entirely alone. And I think I decided she was very much somebody that tried to grab on to any kind of love and attention that she could possibly get. The friendship with Bess comes at a point where she’s been living with this man that doesn’t talk to her, they have basically no relationship for a number of years and all of a suddenly this woman comes in who is interested in her and wants to talk to her and wants to teach her things and who shows her love. So I thought the sexual part of it – and it’s very much Bess teaching Georgiana that there is enjoyment to be had in an act that she never realised there was any pleasure in whatsoever. It was a really interesting turn in the relationship and the fact that it was a woman who was teaching her these things. I think that Georgiana did love her very much which is why the betrayal of Bess sleeping with the Duke is so absolute.”
Q: Georgiana gets married aged 17 in the film and it doesn’t end happily. What message do you think the film can give to teenage girls who consider getting married young?
A: “Don’t get married at 17 to a Duke! She was incredibly, young and romantic and impressionable and she certainly finds out that the romance and the reality of the situation is very different so I think it’s a story of a fairytale going incredibly wrong. I’m not quite sure what that will teach teenage girls about marriage at 17. Maybe wait.”
Q: Your The Duchess co-stars Dominic Cooper and Hayley Atwell have appeared on the London stage recently. Have you any desire to do anything similar in London and if so what sort of part would appeal to you?
A: “Desire yes. Plans, no. I have no idea. I don’t know. I don’t know what it would be. There are so many different kinds of parts. It could be a Shakespeare, it could be a modern. I don’t know, whatever captures my fancy…”
Q: Why do you thing there are so few female roles and do you think the
situation will improve?
A: “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are less female film-makers than there are men. Recently I do seem to be getting sent books and ideas for a lot of much stronger characters which is completely fantastic. I think if there is public demand for really strong female roles then the business will give it to people and if people go and see it then there will be more made. If people don’t then there won’t. I think it’s up to the public.”
Q: The Duchess was very extravagant with money. What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever splashed out on?
A: “I own a flat. That’s very nice. It’s not unfortunately the mansion that I’m always being told about.”
The Duchess is in Irish cinemas from Friday, September 5th.