Review by Sean Boelman
The late Roger Michell was known for making movies that were lighthearted and wholesome in the best way. His final narrative film, The Duke, is much of the same, and while it is one of the director’s more middling efforts, it’s a crowd-pleaser through and through that will leave viewers entertained if not particularly roused.
The movie tells the story of a 61-year-old taxi driver who steals Goya’s iconic portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. It’s not quite a heist movie, nor is it quite Robin Hood — the theft is just a background for some quirky antics. The result is entirely pleasant but also completely forgettable.
Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s script is harmless, but that is just the issue. The film discusses the political motivations that real-life hero Kempton Bunton had for this escapade, but it’s very weak in its approach to these themes. It doesn’t even succeed in making the audience connect with his cause of free television licenses for retirees (a very British issue, mind you).
Benton is a sympathetic protagonist because we see the love he has for his community and family, but it doesn’t translate as well as one would hope. There are moments throughout the movie where we are clearly meant to be celebrating the character’s victory against tyranny, but the audience won’t find themselves moved.
The film is being positioned as a two-hander for Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, but in reality, this is almost exclusively Broadbent’s show. Mirren’s role is surprisingly small and doesn’t have any spectacular moments. The supporting cast also includes Matthew Goode and Fionn Whitehead, both wasted. Only Broadbent gets to do anything meaty.
Perhaps the biggest issue of the movie, though, is that it is extremely rushed. The film is a brisk hour-and-a-half, but there is a lot more to this story than it is able to explore in that runtime. The court case, which had the potential to be the most powerful part of the movie, is crammed into the final thirty minutes to a point where it has no effect.
Michell tries to infuse the film with an artificial energy through the editing, but only succeeds in making things feel more frenetic. It has a playful, jovial tone, but not much else. The chaotic, rushed nature doesn’t translate into energy, and the result is a movie that won’t bore viewers, but isn’t engaging either.
The Duke isn’t a bad film, but there’s nothing about it that stands out as anything other than passive entertainment. It’s the type of movie that you go see at a matinee with you grandma who wants to see something inoffensive, uplifting, and that she can forget the next day without feeling too bad about it.
The Duke opens in theaters on April 22 with further expansions planned for April 29 and May 6.