Review: “The Duke” offers a human view of an art heist

Some movies take us back, in time, as well as to what movies can be. After two years of confusion at the movies, the endearing “The Duke” reminds us just how rich an experience a 90-minute film can create.

At first glance, this journey to England in the early 1960s looks and sounds like many movies about the British working class. We see streets filled with children playing and people talking, cozy dwellings that house loving and loud families and relationships defined by aspiration and disappointment. We share days that are framed by joy, rather than pain, despite struggles people may face. And, while despair could be around the corner, the people we meet in Newcastle, England, in 1961 prefer to look at what can work day in and out.

Of course, there are frustrations. Taxi driver Kempton, played by Jim Broadbent, gets upset when people in power do not respect the realities of everyday life. He jumps on every opportunity to express his views, such as when the authorities threaten to take away his access to BBC television. His wife, Dorothy, portrayed by Helen Mirren, fills her days as a hard-working domestic worker, returning home each evening with uncertainty about what protests her husband may initiate. As they continue to mourn their daughter’s death, several years before, the couple chooses to focus on the challenges their two sons seem to face. When, suddenly, a painting of the Duke of Wellington is stolen from the National Gallery, this anonymous family in a small English town creates national news.

In the spirit of the Oscar-winning “The Full Monty” from 1997, director Roger Michell (who died in September 2021 after filming) helps us believe in his characters by focusing on their day to day routines in visual detail. Rarely does he let these people feel sorry for themselves, disrespect each other, or sink into self-pity, even with the exaggerated choices they make. To sustain the credibility of the situations they face, Michell – along with screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman – work from inside Kempton and Dorothy, and their sons, feel, so we can see why they do, not just what happens when they do.

The performances are sublime. Broadbent and Mirren connect with a chemistry that defines marriages that last for decades, sensing each other’s moods, responding without reaction, communicating without words. They simply share a presence. Broadbent, always accessible and engaging, helps us understand the reasons Kempton makes extreme choices without turning the character into a caricature; Mirren, who can say more with her eyes than most actors can with pages of dialogue, uses an economy of expression and gesture to create a woman committed to supporting a husband she seldom can fully understand. Together they make us believe in what people can endure and experience when they love without condition.

Film Summary: The Duke

Content: High. Roger Michell invites us to travel back in time to life-changing moments in a British family in 1961.

Entertainment: High. Michell creates an engaging feast that satisfies our curiosity about two engaging personalities who wonder what each other may be up to.

Message: High. Without letting the film get too heavy, Michell stylizes situations to remind us what matters as we navigate day-to-day life.

Relevance: High. It's always a treat to see Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren on screen, especially in such enjoyable surroundings.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you watch this film, share your observations of how people tolerate and trust.


At moments, “The Duke” feels like a throwback to a time when movies could be content introducing us to people we cherish getting to know, without explosions or comic book heroes. It’s good to see this kind of movie again.

“The Duke” runs 1 hour and 35 minutes, is rated R for language and brief sexuality, and is showing in theaters.