Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 3, 2022)
Is it true that if you watch a movie in which both Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren star, you automatically earn UK citizenship? No, but with that pair in tow, 2020’s The Duke screams its inherent Englishness from the rooftops.
Set in 1961, Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) lives with wife Dorothy (Mirren) and they barely eke out an existence. He protests the British tax on TV sets, as he thinks it punishes the poor who can least afford it.
When London’s National Gallery acquires a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington, Kempton takes possession of it as a protest. Kempton toys with the authorities as he attempts to use his act as a catalyst for the public good.
As crazy as that sounds, it does come based on truth. I find the main plot easier to accept than the notion of 70-something Broadbent as a 60-year-old, at least, as the actor looks closer to 80 than 60.
Probably best-known for 1999’s rom-com Notting Hill, director Roger Michell died not long after the completion of Duke. While I can’t claim Michell left us with a classic, Duke becomes a moderately engaging fable.
Albeit a not especially focused one. The basic plot of Duke lacks a lot of room for exploration, so the filmmakers need to expand to fill 95 minutes.
This means we spend a lot of time with Kempton, Dorothy and their sons Kenny (Jack Bandeira) and Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). We also get hints of how the death of then-teenaged daughter Marian haunts the family 13 years later.
If all of that sounds like filler… well, it is to a large degree. While we clearly need to get some understanding of Kempton and clan, Duke tends to meander with these scenes, and they feel less than essential.
Viewers buy into Duke due to the nature of the heist itself, and anytime the movie leaves behind that topic, it drags. The film’s largely fictional version of the Buntons never becomes enough to sustain the audience.
That said, the theft also lacks the substance to take up a full-length feature either. There simply isn’t enough meat on those bones to last 95 minutes.
As such, Duke brings a padded effort that tends to feel less than totally fulfilling. Honestly, the movie’s story seems more interesting as a concept than a reality, as the absence of strong narrative thrust much of the time leaves the end result stretched thin.
Still, Duke does enough to keep the viewer reasonably satisfied as it goes. Even without a strong overall narrative, the basic concept remains fun, and the actors help.
Neither Broadbent nor Mirren break a sweat here, as they find themselves in fairly one-dimensional roles. However, they add spark to the underwritten parts and make them more compelling than probably should be the case.
And again, I like the basic concept of the story. The core facts of this adventure offer a good hook.
Ultimately, this leads to an erratic but watchable film. Nothing about The Duke rises above its genre, but it manages to offer a decent cinematic experience.