Keira gets under skin of a complex Duchess

Emma Lee Leading lady Keira Knightley comes of age as an actress in her latest film, the Duchess, which was filmed on location in Norfolk and opens on Friday, September 5. EMMA LEE finds out how she prepared to play the glamorous yet tragic Georgiana.

Emma Lee

I last saw Keira Knightley two years ago, at a press junket for the second instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The difference is remarkable. She's always had a special quality about her - back then she was entertaining and sparky - and refreshingly honest about how she felt about her portrayal in the media.

But speaking about her new film, the Duchess, you can tell this is a role she had real passion for, a character she could really get under the skin of - now she's the leading lady, not just the love interest, and she's relishing it.

There is a difference on screen too; Knightley, who is in practically every scene of the Duchess, is just mesmerising and her gutsy performance has real depth.

It was the writer Amanda Foreman who reignited interest in the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire with her award-winning 1998 biography which was bursting with sensational revelations.

The famous socialite was a complex woman - a free-thinker trying to live a fulfilled life within the constraints of 18th century society.

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At the age of just 17, she was entered into a marriage contract with the Duke of Devonshire with the promise of financial reward when she produced a male heir for him.

Georgiana's belief that the Duke was in love with her quickly evaporated and it became clear that he was more interested in talking to his dogs and sleeping with the maids than her.

The relationship became even more strained when Georgiana gave birth to two daughters.

But while behind closed doors her marriage was in tatters, she became the darling of society - at one point in the film it's noted that the Duke is probably the only person in the country who was not in love with his wife.

In preparing for the role Knightley had clearly done her research. And that didn't just involve reading Foreman's book.

"The current Duchess of Devonshire showed me some of Georgiana's things. She was a huge gambling addict, so it was amazing to see her books of debts written in her own hand," Knightley says.

The film was shot over nine weeks last autumn. It's set in three locations - Devonshire House in London, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Bath.

Holkham Hall, the seat of the Earl of Leicester, is one of the properties that plays the part of Devonshire House, the Duke's austere "bachelor pad". Many emotional scenes are played out on Holkham Hall's imposing marble staircase.

Knightley says that being on location in the stately homes really helped with getting into character.

"Being in those enormous houses, helped with the feelings of isolation that I thought Georgina was going through. The sheer scale and beauty of them is quite astounding," she says.

Norfolk was also the location for the film's emotional climax. When Georgiana has to hand over her illegitimate child to new guardians, the backdrop is the desolate Cley Marshes.

Knightley is brilliantly mis-matched with Ralph Fiennes as the distant Duke, while rising star Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia) plays her extra marital love interest Charles Grey and Hayley Atwell (Brideshead Revisited) stars as Lady Bess Foster.

The film's director, Saul Dibb, a former student at the University of East Anglia, had an unusual way of wooing Knightley to take the role. He wanted her for the part because he saw she shared qualities with Georgiana - beauty, intelligence and celebrity, which came at a young age - and found a quirky way of enticing her to do it.

"I first heard about the film when Saul sent me a letter with three really big ostrich feathers tied with a big bow," she laughs.

"They were very pretty and I thought I have to work with a man who does that."

The feathers were a reference to one of style icon Georgiana's more flamboyant and original head-dresses. Knightley also gets to wear some gravity-defying wigs in the film.

"When I read the script the first thing that struck me was how incredibly lonely this woman was," says Knightley.

"She was constantly surrounded by so many people and yet entirely alone. I think she just tried to grab on to any kind of love and attention that she could possibly get."

Georgiana became involved in politics and eventually fell in love with the future prime minister, Lord Grey.

But despite having to accept her husband's mistress, her best friend Lady Bess Foster, in a humiliating menage-a-trois, her love for Grey was forbidden by the Duke.

Knightley and Dibb have agreed to disagree as to whether Georgiana gets a happy ending - Knightley thinks not.

"The whole journey for her is one from idealism to reality - she gets broken down. She couldn't have lived with herself if she'd gone off with Grey and given up her kids. I don't know if it has a happy ending but I think that she survives and that can only be positive."

Georgiana is a direct ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales (she was her great-great-great-great aunt) and the film's producers have made much of the similarities in their stories - even going so far as to use the infamous line "there were three of them in the marriage" on the advertising posters.

And while Georgiana, like Diana, was often making the news, Knightley says that she didn't use the connection while playing the role.

"I was 11 when Diana died. I knew when I was going into it that she was a distant relation but that's as far as my knowledge went. I was making a film about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and I think she's an interesting enough person to warrant a film about her, without comparison."

But, like Diana, Georgiana was a trend-setter of her time. And, for Knightley, that meant being sewn into corsets, topped off with the outlandish headwear. In one scene she wears a bizarre hat made from a fox.

"The costumes were completely fantastic because Georgiana was a very famous fashion icon. But they weren't particularly comfortable," she admits.

"In a corset you can't catch your breath. It means your emotions are heightened because you can't calm down."

It's dizzying to think of how far Knightley's come, from her supporting turns in Bend It Like Beckham and low-budget teen horror flick The Hole, to acclaim as the leading lady in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, in just a few years. Especially as she's still only in her early 20s. Now the more mature and demanding roles are coming her way.

"It was completely terrifying [playing Georgiana]. It's very rare to get a role like that, so when it comes along and you get the opportunity to play it, it's phenomenal and terrifying," she says.

"Recently I do seem to be getting sent books and ideas for stronger female characters, which is completely fantastic. I think if people go and see films about strong women, there'll be more made and if they don't, there won't. It's up to the public," she says.

And we might not just be seeing her on the big screen. She's also expressed a desire to do stage work. "I have the desire, 'Yes'. Plans, 'No'," she says. "It could be Shakespeare, it could be modern; whatever catches the fancy."

See Friday's EDP2 to find out how Holkham Hall made it onto the big screen and why director Saul Dibb chose it as a location. And in next week's EDP Saturday magazine Phillipa Stockley takes a look at the true story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.