It starts out well and promises a lot. The first shot sequence in The Duchess has Georgiana (Keira Knightley) and her galpals outside wagering on which handsome man will win a short footrace. The women (girls, really) are in charge here and, contra mundum at the time, subvert gender roles by treating the men like horses. Inside the nearby manor, however, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) and Georgiana’s mother haggle over Georgiana herself. She’s sold/married off in the midst of the outdoor games and ends up having to leave with her new groom. Unfortunately, the film henceforth forgets its own art and descends into the territory of a biopic, complete with intertitles contextualizing the year, setting, and subsequent characters. Most sadly, the film seems stuck at the maturity level of its titular character, who insists in an early scene that “freedom is an absolute,” after a man in politics insists that freedom will be extended to “some but not all” in Britain. One doesn’t know where to begin with pointing out the logical fallacies here. Suffice it to say, only a bigot refuses to extend freedom to certain social groups, but only a fool demands that freedom is an absolute. (Freedom can exist only where there is law; without law, there is only anarchy. One is not “free” to steal, murder, rape, etc.) That Georgiana’s life is bound by an arbitrary law should illustrate all the more the need for appropriate boundaries, but instead her infidelity is designed to illicit pity for her from the audience and all the more disgust toward the Duke (read: “douche”). Why is Sofia Coppola’s unfairly maligned Marie Antoinette much better than this? Because it acknowledges the foolishness of its main character while acknowledging the foolishness of the society that would allow her to be what she was. She is not merely victimized, a fact all the more poignant in that film, since it’s explicitly autobiographical. Sofia could have pardoned her own royal sins by pardoning those of Marie, but instead she identifies with her. Why must so many of these contemporary period films take us back only to take us beneath? It may have been a messy time in 18th century Britain, but was 2009 much better?