Review: The Duke (2022)

I am calling it: this is the best feel-good film that I have had the pleasure of watching for as long as I can remember. Olivia Ryan's review of 'The Duke' at Cinema Nova


Content warnings: references to death and dying

I am calling it: this is the best feel-good film that I have had the pleasure of watching for as long as I can remember. Granted, it has been a while since I watched a new rom-com (because let’s face it, they don’t make them like they used to) or an animated kid’s film. I think Soul was the last one, and “feel-good” is certainly not an adjective I would use to describe that movie.

But that is not to say that this rousing comedy, which first premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 before facing a series of pandemic-induced delays, is one that lacks heart or meaning. No, quite the opposite.

The Duke follows Kempton Bunton, who is played by the irrefutably likable Jim Broadbent. Bunton — an old man with a thick Geordie accent and a strong, thumping socialist heart — struggles to hold down a steady job. The film, set in the mid 1960s, tracks how the Newcastle native was thrust into the national spotlight for stealing and holding ransom Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington. The heist, which left investigators stunned, was in protest of the government’s misuse of taxpayer funds. These funds could have been better spent on causes that would have positively impacted citizens, in particular the elderly and disadvantaged. It is in the big smoke of London’s Old Bailey court that he is tried for charges of theft. The real kicker is that this twisting and turning tale is based on a true story.  

Amongst the bleak setting of gray brick homes and rain-battered cobblestones, Bunton is on a mission to right the wrongs of society — be that protesting a television license tax or standing up for blatant workplace discrimination. An avid playwright, he also seeks to write the wrongs of the misfortunes in his life. Piles of plays and novels he has penned serve as an antidote to his grief after the loss of a relative. Opposite him is his biting but devoted wife, Dorothy, who takes on more of a stiff-upper-lip approach to her pain. Helen Mirren, the English actor who plays Dorothy, offers up a customary stellar performance. Bunton’s youngest son, Jackie, shares his cheek and is played by Fionn Whitehead in a gig that grants him a lot more smiles (and lines) than his notable starring role in Dunkirk.

Though Bunton might think of himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, he is undoubtedly a liar, a thief and at times, completely negligent. He is not neglectful of the greater good, but rather of the promises he makes to his wife, even despite her repeated pleas for him to put his “own kind” before “mankind”.

However, there is not a second where you don’t find yourself rooting for him. His quick wit (his verdict after close inspection of the masterpiece: “It’s not very good, is it?”) and chronic optimism are certainly part of his charm. Bunton’s widespread popularity is also clearly evident in the droves of people who appear in the stalls during his hearing. Even as the storyline takes an unexpected turn that throws the series of recounted events into disarray, you can rest assured, it will only make you appreciate Bunton more. 

As the final feature film made by South African-British director Roger Michell before his death in September of last year, The Duke joins a catalog of Michell’s iconic films including Notting Hill and My Cousin Rachel. If one thing is for certain with his final movie, he ended his career on a high. The Duke is ultimately a display of courage, conviction and strength of character that will leave you feeling nothing but uplifted. 

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