Death and legacy are the on the mind of writer/director Daniel Graham in The Grand Duke of Corsica. It’s the story of four different men, each one trying to secure some form of immortality in the face of encroaching and inevitable death. We can see what the filmmaker is attempting, since Graham isn’t exactly subtle in regards to anything in this movie. That doesn’t make the movie any less of a hollow, overreaching mess.
The main character is Alfred Rott (Timothy Spall), a famous architect whose manner and attitude are as his name suggests. He’s rude and crude, losing the possibility of a building a concert hall in Malta on account of his abrasive personality.
Instead, after attending a hedonistic party at a mansion, Alfred is invited to meet with the self-proclaimed Grand Duke of Corsica (Peter Stormare). He wants a magnificent mausoleum built for his final resting place. As an epidemic of malaria devastates the island country, Alfred gets to work, while the two strange men discuss what they’ll leave behind after death.
None of this really works, partly because both Alfred and the Duke are equally, if distinctly, so off-putting. Alfred’s issues are apparent (Graham’s later efforts to soften the character come out of nowhere), and the Duke is so generically eccentric that he exists as a storytelling device, not a recognizable or engaging character. A friendship develops by the end, as the Duke is dying of malaria, but it rings insincere and undeveloped.
Graham simply tries to do too much for those characters, that relationship, and the movie’s other major narrative thread to mean much of anything. The secondary story, which features the third and fourth characters in this wandering tale of mortality, involves Francis of Assisi and Leos, the actor playing the saint in a movie biography (Both, obviously, are played by Matt Hookings). Francis wants to make an impact on earth that will reflect the eternal divine, and the actor, also stricken with malaria, hopes people will be inspired by the man he’s portraying.
The juxtapositions of the lives and deaths of these men make up the bulk of Graham’s point, but none of the characters and none of their conversations feel real or honest. The Grand Duke of Corsica wants to say a lot but, ultimately, gives us little more than quirks and a final note of unearned nihilism.