Director: Roger Mitchell
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goode, Aimee Kelly, Jack Bandeira, Sian Clifford
Written by: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
Running Time: 96 mins
release date: 25th February 2022
It was with great sadness that director Roger Mitchell passed away last September. You may not have heard of his name, but his resume of movies was one of great variety, from Notting Hill to Enduring Love to My Cousin Rachel. With a documentary coming soon about Queen Elizabeth II, The Duke, a caper based on a true story, was his final feature. Because of the pandemic, this has been moved around the schedules. Unfortunately, he missed the opportunity to see the film with an audience. I am glad to say that this is a perfectly charming swan song to an awe-inspiring career.
Kempton Bunton is a man on a mission. Standing up for those rights being repressed by the government, he is championing free television licences for the elderly. It’s 1961, and while he struggles to keep a job and spends time in jail because of the causes, he feels he is a modern-day Robin Hood. When the nation pays for a painting of The Duke of Wellington by Goya, this puts Bunton into action. Supposing someone stole it and held the government to ransom so he could use the money to care for others.
Mitchell’s gentle comedy-drama harks back to the time of Ealing comedies, where ordinary people find themselves caught up in a crime. Except this isn’t just a piece of fiction but based on an incredible true story. The first thing that impresses me is the sense of period. Using 60s stock footage to convey the time and place and some perfect locations and costumes, this feels like we are back in a simpler time not long after the war. The cinematography is drenched with a browny-yellowy hue, and every inch of film is bathed in 60s memorabilia.
The story itself is outlandish. Here is a man, on the verge of retirement, struggling to keep a job down because of his political views, and yet is the prime suspect in stealing a portrait from the National Gallery. Getting his son involved and keeping it from his increasingly put-upon wife while trying to blackmail the government for its return sounds exactly like something from a comedy with Alec Guinness. Yet we are informed that this is all true. It is even more unbelievable that the police believed the thief to be someone working for a criminal gang. Yet here is a simple older man from Newcastle outfoxing everyone.
Mitchell’s film perfectly fits that world of gentle British comedies that we have become accustomed to making. It doesn’t have the impact of The Full Monty. Still, indeed, as a slice of Sunday afternoon entertainment, it goes down very nicely and has just enough feel-good elements and gentle sniggers to ease you through the pressures of everyday life. The script has plenty of wit, especially in the final courtroom scenes, and the relationships between the characters work well, especially between dreamer Kempton and his ever-disgruntled wife, Dorothy.
Peppered with familiar British acting talent (Motherland’s Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Goode), the film belongs to the two leads, Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. As an individual, Broadbent shines as Kempton. He is like a warm hug, a man who only wants the best for others and who cannot see that he should be thinking of himself and his family before getting into more trouble for strangers. With a pitch-perfect Newcastle accent, he is a delight, as is Mirren, looking her drabbest as Dorothy. Even without saying a word, Mirren conveys a woman pushed to the edge by her husband’s antics. Yet when the pair share the screen, it is cinematic gold. A double act you could sit and watch for hours. They are wonderful.
The Duke is a short, sweet, elegant movie that feels old-fashioned yet still has plenty to say about modern Britain. It even has a fun scene at the end, where we see a clip from Dr No, with Sean Connery in the doctor’s lair, passing the Goya painting, as if Dr No had stolen it. It’s this gentle sense of humour that makes this a must-see if you want something undemanding and yet enjoyable. And a perfect farewell to a talented director.
4 out of 5