There is a certain gentle rhythm or mildness that comes with the work of the late Roger Michell. Considering how mellow a film of his tended to be, it always remains a strange bit of trivia to me that he nearly directed the James Bond flick Quantum of Solace. 007 never seemed like a fit, but something like The Duke certainly was. His final movie, Michell is working to his low-key strengths, with a pair of nice performances being given under his command. Having premiered almost over a year and a half ago, back at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, it finally hits theaters this weekend.
The Duke is light on its feet, even when the protagonist is trying to make his social issue a focal point of the plot. There’s a lot of goodwill generated by Jim Broadbent in his lead role, but Michell’s direction is wise enough to focus in on that. There may not be a ton of ambition on display here, but when it comes to execution, things are largely on point.
Taking place in 1961, this is the true story of 60 year old taxi driver Kempton Bunton (Broadbent). A working stiff, living with his gruff wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), alongside grown sons Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira), he’s also a crusader, refusing to pay the TV licensing fee, arguing that there should be free public TV for the poor and for seniors. This is the sort of man who would rather spend a night in jail that bend on his principles. When Kempton and Jackie hear on the news that the National Gallery in London has paid handsomely for Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, a plan begins to form. They’ll just borrow the painting, which should allow them to finance these free TV licenses. Of course, in short order, it’s reported that the painting has been stolen, leading to a national crisis.
Kempton and Jackie hide the painting in a closet while figuring out the next move. Trying to still do the right thing, he opts to sent ransom notes to the investigators, stating that the painting would be returned if the government invested more in care for the elderly. While the authorities never catch him, he eventually returns the painting in person, opting to face the music and state his case in court. With a barrister by his side in Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode), he has his chance to take a stand…literally. Considering that this is a movie, it’s not hard to see where it’s all going, but there’s mild pleasure in watching it unfold.
Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are very good here. Broadbent has the showy role and has a grand old time with it, while Mirren elevates a slightly underwritten part. Their old married couple chemistry is very much on point. Matthew Goode and Fionn Whitehead aren’t given nearly as much to do, but they’re welcome presences and fit with the style on hand. In addition to Jack Bandeira, supporting players here include Aimee Kelly, Anna Maxwell Martin, and more.
The final film from director Roger Michell is very much the sort of work we’ve come to know him for. While the screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is only sometimes as clever as it wants to be, Michell is a steadying presence for The Duke. The trio do allow for a small surprise near the end that you may not see coming, but it’s hardly the point. Broadbent’s good man, as well as his relationship with Mirren, is as much the focus, with solid results. Even if both characters aren’t written equally, the performances step up to handle that.
The Duke caps Michell’s career in a gently enjoyable manner. Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are likely the bigger selling points here, but whatever or whomever gets you in front of this flick, you’re in for a good time. It’s not the sort of movie that reinvents the cinematic wheel, but then again, it’s not trying to, either.