Movie Review ~ The Duke

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goode
Director: Roger Michell
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review:  I know you’ve been wondering, so I’m going to break the suspense. I’m often asked what’s the worst thing about reviewing movies. Simple question, easy answer: reviewing good actors in a not-so-great film. You’d think it would be painless to review bad movies, but it’s honestly not fun because, as a true-blue movie fan, you want to like everything you see. They can’t all be winners, though, and sometimes they are downright stinkers. That’s the case of The Duke, a doubly sad affair because it is the final film from director Roger Michell, who passed away in September 2021. 

I had an inkling the film was in trouble because it had been moved around in the release schedule so many times, and for a small movie with two Oscar-winning stars in the middle of awards season, that’s an odd occurrence. While it picked up a few nominations in the UK, groups shut the movie out of any awards discussion stateside, and you can see why. It’s a total turkey, a dramedy without much moving drama or witty comedy to prove a worthwhile watch to fans of anyone involved. Also, there’s something to be said that the trailer for the film gives away absolutely everything that happens in the movie.

Dry to the point of breaking into a million pieces, the story of a London taxi driver (Jim Broadbent, Dolittle) who stole a priceless portrait from the National Gallery and became a hometown legend after he confesses feels like a slam dunk. Yet as played by Broadbent, the character is so unlikable, dotty, and disagreeable from the start that you aren’t ever convinced to be on his side, at least not long enough to stand with him against the government which was determined to prosecute him. It’s also hard to warm to his wife, played with typical stiff upper lip gusto by Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold). While Mirren’s resolve works typically to her favor, it offers her nowhere emotionally to grow, certainly not in her relationship with her husband and definitely not with their son, Fionn Whitehead (Voyagers).

Michell directed many films that had charm coming at you from all angles (hello, Notting Hill!), but The Duke is curiously absent of anything resembling persuasive charisma, and I was eternally grateful it clocked in at a decently short 96 minutes. Anything longer would have been a true prison sentence for audiences.

 

Movie Review ~ Philomena

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewPhilomena provided an interesting challenge for me.  Being a huge Judi Dench fan I was happy to see the actress back on screen in what looked to be a tearjerker drama, affording the esteemed actress another chance to shine.  On the other hand, I’ve found it very hard to warm to the other star of the film, Steve Coogan.  I’ve found his previous work to be a chore to sit through and his style of comedy unappealing.  Though I enjoyed Coogan’s very meta comedy The Trip from 2010, the horror of 2008’s Hamlet 2 still was scuffling about in my mind.

When I read more about Philomena’s true life origins and with the added involvement of celebrated director Stephen Frears, I knew that there was no keeping me back from this dramedy and I’m so happy that I went into the film as unbiased toward Coogan as I could be because he’s one of the key reasons the film winds up so damn good.

Coogan wears many hats in the film in addition to being co-star (and really, second fiddle to Dame Dench).  He co-wrote the script adaptation from Martin Sixsmith’s novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and he also produced the film – a lot of responsibilities but he seems to have balanced it all well.

Playing Sixsmith, a disgraced political journalist used to writing hard hitting news stories that finds himself traipsing over the UK and US with the aged Philomena to find what happened to the baby boy she was forced to give up for adoption, Coogan has strong contributes to the film but mostly just gets the hell out of Dench’s way.

Dame Dench (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is luminous as ever as Philomena, who starts the film as broken and perhaps a bit simple but gradually finds an inner strength through forgiveness that adds a hefty fuel to the film’s fire.  I won’t spoil the secrets of what Philomena and Martin discover on their journey because once you think you know where the film is headed, it opens up another door of mystery that you didn’t even know was there.

Though the film does fall into some trappings of fitting the defined beats of a real story into the framework of a movie, it overcomes them by the grace of Dench’s nuanced and heartbreaking performance and Coogan’s strong support.  Frears, too, tends to keep things moving along at a brisk clip so that you aren’t considering how convenient many of the happenings really are.

This is one of those films that creeps up on you in ways you least expect it.  You’ll want to have some tissues handy for there are multiple moments that you’ll find you’ve got something stuck in your eye.  Dench should be assured a trip to the Oscars this year for her rich work here, a complex character that has more layers that anyone could ever have originally conceived.  It’s a brilliant performance in a well groomed film.