The Duke is an absurdist romp balanced by Michell’s trademark ease, and a fitting swan song for the director.
As the final narrative feature from celebrated British filmmaker Roger Michell, The Duke offers an apt coda to the career of an underrated force in British filmmaking. Starring veterans Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, The Duke tells the true story of Kempton Bunyon (Broadbent), a politically-active pensioner and charming eccentric who finds himself on trial for stealing Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington. His permanently exasperated wife, Dorothy (Mirren), and son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), quickly become embroiled in Kempton’s scheme to hold the painting hostage to further his political goals — namely, abolishing the TV license fee for OAPs.
With a story as absurd as this one, Michell’s characteristic restraint flourishes the materials, and his understated direction willingly takes a backseat to let his actors’ performances run the show. It follows then that there’s nothing flashy about The Duke, nothing that might distract from the excellent work of Mirren and Broadbent, both of whom execute every comic and dramatic beat to perfection. And while many might find the lack of visual ingenuity to be a failure given the medium, the film communicates a clear pursuit of substance over style, and handles this approach with maturity and self-assurance. Michell’s visual design, true to the director’s form, is seamless, showcasing his performers in unobtrusive compositions with reasoned intentionality, all of which contribute to the film’s impression of authenticity. Instead of producing a slick, Soderberghian heist film, Michell’s take is thoroughly British, replacing the smooth-talking con-man figure of American heist cinema with a clumsy, bumbling old man, and even borrowing its transition effects from mid-aughts caper-of-the-week UK television like Hustle. Michell is also careful to incorporate the specifics of Bunyon’s old-guard socialist beliefs and wrings genuine pathos from the omnipresent UK class system rather than simply relying on a vague, Robin Hood-esque motivation. Which is to say, The Duke is a film that feels genuinely rooted in the northern, working-class communities it depicts, its fidelity a perfect complement to the film’s silliness of plot and character.
Perhaps Roger Michell’s greatest legacy as a filmmaker will be his skillful transition from stage to screen, and the prevailing approach of prioritizing actors that he seems to have learned from those early years. Michell has always been gifted at coaxing remarkable performances from his performers, and The Duke is no exception in this regard. While the film is certainly quaint and so understated that it might be too easy for some viewers to miss its considerable dramatic weight, it also proves that such singular actors such as Mirren and Broadbent do not need prestigious, overenunciated awards-bait roles to thrive. The Duke may not be radical filmmaking, but it provides a satisfying end to Michell’s career by operating as the kind of simple concept executed well that he proved so adept with, successfully combining all the hallmarks of the director’s career into a film that is heartwarmingly absurdist without ever devolving into twee.