Roger Michell’s last film is a fun if shallow true story
Jim Broadbent has grown comfortable in a very specific type of role in his later career, that of quirky old man. It’s with slight variation on this trope that the British veteran has been able to garner his career-best successes of the past twenty years. With the premise and character at the center of The Duke (2020), it’s hard to imagine anyone else, but Broadbent taking on the lead role.
The Duke is the true story of Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) who is a fierce advocate of various social causes of his hometown of Newcastle, but whose frustration in being taken seriously leads him to steal Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in 1961.
The Duke is veteran British director Roger Michell’s last film after he unexpectedly passed away in the fall of 2021. The filmmaker behind the likes of Notting Hill (1999) and Venus (2006) retains his sense of joy and quirky style in The Duke, helping distinguish the film from its TV-movie script. The Duke struggles to fill its runtime, and you feel that the combination of a curious headline and a colorful character was enough for the producers to dive into making of this film without pausing to see if there is enough material for a feature length narrative. The film thus resorts to spend time building Kempton’s character and his family. This is aided by a strong cast; his wife is played by an underused Helen Mirren and one of his sons by the up-and-coming star Fionn Whitehead. This endears the central family to viewers at first, but as we spend more and more time with them their use begins to feel like padding.
The fact that the film is only barely over 1hr and 30 minutes in runtime indicates how little there really was to say about the central story of The Duke. Michell doesn’t want to overcomplicate his story with the more philosophical questions about the value of art vs. poverty, and he even strays away from a family trauma that would have made the Buntons’ story much more complex and richer. Michell seems set on keeping his affair light and straightforward, this makes for a fun watch, but a rather shallow one as well.
The Duke is a star-vehicle for Broadbent. Reportedly, Michell would only do the film if the British thespian signed on, and it is hard to imagine a more perfect fit. Broadbent has become such an expert in this type or charming old man that he unfairly makes it look easy. Broadbent and Michell work in great tandem, being informative while also refreshing with style and tone. It is in the supporting roles that The Duke loses its grasp. Mirren and Whitehead seem to be playing a serious drama compared to their quirky surroundings; this might have been a choice to better contrast the colorful nature of Kempton, but it makes such performances seem incongruous as a result. Luckily, Michell is far more interested in Broadbent with his camera lingering on him rather than the supporting players.
In the end, The Duke is a charming film centered around Broadbent’s centrifugal performance. Michell in his final outing is able to don the film with his trademark levity and humor, and together with his lead actor they elevate The Duke from a generic and forgettable made-for-TV film into a charming and light experience.