CAST: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin, Jack Bandeira, Aimée Kelly, Joshua McGuire, Charlotte Spencer, John Heffernan, Andrew Havill, James Wilby, Sian Clifford
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
BASICALLY…: A middle-aged moral crusader (Broadbent) steals a Goya painting from the National Gallery, in return for better conditions for the elderly…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
One of the more tragic victims of pandemic-delayed film releases is, unexpectedly, the crowd-pleasing Brit flick The Duke. It is tragic in the sense that, despite debuting to rave reception at mostly-virtual festivals back in 2020, its director Roger Michell won’t be able to finally see his film connect with audiences as originally intended, since the respected Notting Hill and Enduring Love filmmaker sadly passed away last year. He did, luckily, leave us with one last dramatic film to his name (as well as the upcoming commemorative jubilee documentary Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts), and it is a sweet, light, and hugely likeable film that audiences will certainly fall in love with, as Michell certainly would have wanted.
The film takes place in Newcastle during the early 1960s, where a middle-aged working-class man named Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) has been tackling social injustice for most of his life, and is currently campaigning for free TV licences for elderly residents as well as war veterans. His actions equally inspire his young son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and frustrate his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), the latter of whom wants him to finally settle down after an upcoming activist’s trip to London. He initially agrees, but eventually comes back with an unexpected souvenir: a portrait of the Duke of Wellington, as painted by Francisco de Goya, which has been taken from the National Gallery in the dead of night. Kempton’s intention is to return the painting in exchange for enough money to fund countless TV licences for the elderly, but the resulting fallout within his own family leads to a headline-making trial where, against all odds, Kempton and his lawyer Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode) must convince the world that was happened wasn’t a crime, but an extreme attempt to do some good in society.
It’s not an especially deep or complex film to try and analyse, but The Duke both accepts and embraces its light approach to this bizarre true-story narrative. Michell’s lively direction emphasises the quirky, screwball nature of the premise, and gets a lot of decent chuckles out of the unexpected – and most decidedly British – reactions to this very strange turn of events. You will have scenes of police detectives incorrectly assuming a high-end criminal gang is responsible for the theft of the painting, while the real culprit is sitting in his armchair at home munching and briefly choking on a biscuit watching the news unfold. Some choice uses of strong language, slightly more than one may expect in a 12A film, also earn some pleasantly hearty laughs that contrast with the reserved and seemingly pedestrian tone that the movie appears to be settling with. You can easily see this becoming a hit with UK audiences, because it knows just how and when to use its arsenal of light-hearted humour and feel-good moments without overdoing its own charm.
The film is also good at making you empathise with the protagonist and his decisively illegal actions, because both the character and Broadbent’s heartfelt performance are extremely likeable, enough to where you really do want to see this guy get off the hook as much as possible with this crime. Broadbent does very well to draw out his character’s moral code on several occasions, whether it’s standing up for a co-worker after he is racially taunted by his boss, or tirelessly campaigning in the pouring rain so that only a handful of people can sign up for his cause, and it’s never to a point where this character becomes insufferable or entirely self-righteous; he always comes across as just a good person, trying to make things fairer for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Also great here is Helen Mirren, with the actress being given a lot of strong dramatic moments as Bunton’s conflicted wife, who herself is still dealing with the emotional aftermath of a devastating loss some years prior. As much as you understand Kempton’s endless moral crusade, you also get why Mirren’s Dorothy is so disheartened by her husband’s activism, as well as how she reacts to finally learning the truth about his latest endeavour to rattle the cages of society.
As charming and light-hearted as it is, do not go in expecting to get anything much deeper or thematically complex. Instead, The Duke just is one of those films that wants to tell this story without reading too much into things, and manages to do so in a very likeable way that is bound to connect with audiences at this moment in time. It is also bittersweet, for although Roger Michell may not live to see his final scripted drama on the big screen where something like this belongs, he can (figuratively and literally) rest in peace knowing that the film he made is as audience-friendly and widely accessible as he very much would have wanted it to be.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Duke is a hugely likeable crowd-pleaser which may not offer anything deep or thematically complex, but still tells this strange real-life tale with plenty of charm and winning energy that makes it destined to become an audience hit, as late director Roger Michell would have intended.