It's the early 1790s and the Reign of Terror follows the French Revolution and the fall of the Bastille. France attempts to stabilize and form a new government of the people but many of the people are rowdy and murderous. Grace Elliott an elegant Scottish divorcee lives luxuriously in Paris but around her swirls the violence and mayhem of a populist movement that has the Jacobin mobs weeding out the aristocratic remnants of Royalist rule. While Grace holds on to her pro-Royalist sentiments her ex-lover the Duke of Orleans who hates his cousin King Louis XVI--now in the hands of the enemy--has joined forces with the pro-Revolution opposition. In spite of their political differences the Duke and Grace maintain a cordial relationship. But chaos and danger are all around them: the King is imprisoned and mobs are storming the homes of suspecting aristocrats. Grace flees to her country home but returns to Paris to help a Royalist fugitive. On this suspenseful return journey (Paris at this time is actually sealed off) she witnesses the crowds at their worst as they brandish the head of a princess through the Parisian streets. In the post-Revolutionary anarchy both the Duke and Grace are arrested but thanks to the ironic intervention of Robespierre the legendary hero of the Revolution Grace's fate at the hands of the wielders of the guillotine is far happier than the Duke's.
While The Lady and the Duke boasts no "name" actors all performances are deliciously on the mark including Lucy Russell as the quietly elegant but brave Grace and Jean-Claude Dreyfus as the well-meaning but doomed liberal Duke. Supporting roles effectively reflecting the emotional and political turmoil of the time all contribute to the richness and authenticity of this historic tableau.
Prolific director Eric Rohmer has since the '50s produced articulate elegant films that focus on relationships and the power of fate to alter human lives and he delivers a real gem of similar ilk here. As he did in other period films like The Marquise of O and Perceval le Gallois Rohmer injects magic and atmosphere into this work which he adapted from the Lady's actual journals. The film's story skillfully lays out the chaotic politics of the time while its digitally enabled visuals deliver a breathtakingly beautiful and very convincing Revolutionary era Paris in a feast for the eyes. Again displaying his gifts for choosing and working with the right actors Rohmer has them deliver his fact-based story fluidly convincingly and engagingly. The characters are restrained with their words (after all this is 1790 or so) yet like all Rohmer characters they come alive as flesh and blood people with familiar emotions pulsating along side their strongly held political leanings.