SIFF 2022: The Duke

Directed by: Roger Michell
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classic

Written by Patrick Hao

63/100

Perfectly agreeable good time at the movies. That is how I would describe “The Duke” and most of the films in Roger Michell’s filmography. The director of breezy light populist dramas such as “Notting Hill,” “Venus,” and “Morning Glory,” passed away last fall at the age of 65. His last film, “The Duke” is a perfect encapsulation of his sensibilities as a filmmaker.

The film is the true-crime retelling of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a cab driving auto-didact, who in 1961 was put on trial for stealing a painting of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Rather than doing it for greed, Bunton sees himself as a Robin Hood type of figure. His ultimate goal is to ransom the painting so that the government would pay for all seniors, pension receivers, and the poor to receive TV licenses to own a TV set (a law in the UK at the time to fund the BBC) because he believes that television would be a welcome salve for the lonely.

Bunton is portrayed as a peculiar sort. He is an autodidact, having received little education but loves Chekhov. He writes plays and sends them to broadcasting companies in hopes of being performed to no avail. And he is an activist advocating for the working class folk. All this comes at the chagrin of his wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), who often has to clean up after his messes as he begs for forgiveness with a sly smile.

Broadbent as Bunton is allowed to be as charismatically charming as possible. He always had a penchant for bringing the best out of doddering fools. Mirren as Dorothy on the other hand can oftentimes feel one-note. Mirren is too good of an actress to not imbue her with some heftiness and complexity, but the love story between the two feels too one-sided. It is Dorothy that has been burdened with change, as opposed to her husband.

Meanwhile, the actual crime and subsequent spectacle of the court case is left til about the last half of the movie. Matthew Goode is a welcomed late addition to the cast as Kempton’s barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson, QC. Like the movie himself, Goode lends a steady assured hand that everything is under control. Everything is light, breezy, and a good time – a perfect film for Sony Pictures Classic and for the Upper East Side matinee crowd of over-55s.

If anything, “The Duke” feels like a breath of fresh air when compared to the myriad of true crime hucksters and grifters on TV and movies these days. Those shows and adaptations want to impart some sort of message about humanity or culture. Why can’t we just have a fine movie about fundamentally decent people? This is what Roger Michell had excelled at. Even if he was never someone in the upper echelon of filmmakers, Michell’s sensibilities will surely be missed.

“The Duke” Trailer

“The Duke” is in limited rolling theatrical release.

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