The narrative of Alfred Rott (Timothy Spall), an architect commissioned by an eccentric millionaire calling himself the Grand Duke of Corsica (Peter Stormare) to construct his tomb, is told in The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica. Rott gets further intertwined with the billionaire’s life – and, indeed, his death – as he becomes fascinated by the work and the duke.
In many ways, The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica is a difficult film to appreciate. In several instances, the pace is strange and uneven. For example, the film meanders its feet in getting to the main tale, but it also rushes past key character exchanges once the storyline begins, preventing the interpersonal dynamics at the heart of the story from flourishing. The wording is also uneven, with most of the conversation alternating between being too flowery and poetic to seem natural and vulgar in a disconnected and unnatural way.
Despite these shortcomings, the production manages to come together innovatively and compellingly, making it far more than the sum of its parts. While the narrative sometimes feels like it’s attempting to accomplish too much at times, with several plot lines and character arcs looking half-baked as a consequence, the overall tale is cohesive enough thanks to the continuous unifying themes of life, death, and legacy. An eerily prophetic investigation of illnesses and pandemics (in this example, malaria) impacts differently in a society still affected by Covid-19.
The plot is also salvaged by the ensemble cast’s outstanding performances, with the performers working hard to keep the piece together and compensate for its flaws. Spall and Stormare, in particular, have terrific chemistry as the no-nonsense Rott and the quirky grand duke. Though more might have been done to capitalize on the two actors’ chemistry, there is plenty to carry the picture on the screen.
This charmingly eccentric film tells its narrative in an unorthodox, often challenging, but ultimately entertaining manner. While The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica is undoubtedly an acquired taste, it compensates for structural problems and writing issues with a solid narrative core, a great cast, and a clear thematic vision.