The Duke

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

The Duke
dir Roger Michell
prd Nicky Bentham
scr Richard Bean, Clive Coleman
with Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin, Jack Bandeira, Aimee Kelly, Charlotte Spencer, Sian Clifford, John Heffernan, Ashley Kumar, James Wilby
release US 17.Sep.21,
UK 25.Feb.22
21/UK Pathe 1h36

whitehead goode maxwell martin

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broadbent and mirren
Another true story gets the crowd-pleasing British romp treatment, complete with a terrific all-star cast led by Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. There are some important things going on in the story, but the filmmakers brush past them in an effort to keep things fizzy. As a result, the movie never challenges us to grapple with the deeper themes. But director Roger Michell and his cast keep it briskly entertaining.
In 1961 Newcastle, Kempton (Broadbent) is always helping marginalised people, most recently campaigning to provide licence-free TV to pensioners. But his outspoken opinions prevent him from holding down a job. So when the government pays £140,000 for Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington, he hatches a plan to steal it and ransom it for cash that would go to those who need it. His supportive son Jack (Whitehead) is in on this, but they must keep it a secret from his alert wife Dorothy (Mirren), who is getting fed up with Kempton's nonsense.
The film is framed with Kempton's sensational trial at the Old Bailey, which plays out later in detail as his barrister (Goode) wryly seeks ways to win over the jury's sympathies. These scenes are enormously engaging, packed with warm messages about how the connections between people are what make up a society. What is never mentioned is that the UK government has a long history of badly mistreating its most needy citizens, something that might have given the film a punchy present-day resonance. In other words, the generic themes are solid, but could have carried a bite.

Broadbent and Mirren effortlessly add layers to their roles, bringing out terrific details in their interaction that add to the overall picture of their marriage, which has been scarred by the loss of a daughter and the criminal antics of their other son Ken (Bandeira). Whitehead gives the film a shot of positive energy as Jack, and his romance with Kelly's Irene is nicely understated. As Dorothy's boss, Maxwell Martin gets a scene-stealing moment later on, and Goode has fun as the sardonic lawyer.

While this film is consistently watchable, and the story gripping, the way the darker angles of the script are nudged aside leaves it feeling somewhat unsatisfying. The underlying ideas are still here, and the strong sense of social justice elevates this beyond more superficial comedies. But by never taking on things like grief or inequality, the screenwriters essentially undermine the very thing that makes the narrative and characters so compelling.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality 8.Jul.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall