Comedic caper more than feel-good froth
Directed by Roger Michell
Reviewed by James Croot
Yes, as the trailers and promos more than suggest, this is the 2022 answer to The Lavender Hill Mob, Local Hero, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot or
Kinky Boots. A British underdog story full of heart, humour and terrific performances. But it is also much more than that.
The Duke is a fabulous showcase for one of the seemingly forgotten greats of British acting in Jim Broadbent and fitting fictional swansong by the brilliant director Roger Michell ( Notting Hill, My
Cousin Rachel and next month’s documentary on our reigning monarch Elizabeth), who sadly died last year while the pandemic put the film’s release on hiatus.
Best known as Harry Potter’s
Horace Slughorn and for his awardwinning turns as Iris’ John Bayley and Moulin Rogue!’ s Harold Zidler, Broadbent here plays Kempton Bunton, a real-life aspiring Newcastle playwright and political agitator, whose big moment came in the early 1960s.
Notorious for challenging everything from the size of a pint at the local pub to having to pay for a television licence (he claimed an exemption based on the fact he had disabled his set so that it couldn’t receive the BBC), his crusades against perceived persecutions and injustices mean he struggles to hold down a job and is the bane of his exasperated, long-suffering wife Peggy (Helen Mirren at her acerbic, scene-stealing best).
While he promises that he’ll give it all up after one last attempt at persuading those in London of the importance of wiping the licence fee attached to ‘‘the modern cure for loneliness’’ for pensioners and war veterans, he secretly returns with an illegally obtained bargaining chip.
Saved from foreign hands by a £140,000 government purchase, Spanish artist Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington is, to Bunton, a symbol of everything that’s wrong about the country’s priorities.
Now that it is sitting in the back of his spare-bedroom’s wardrobe, he’s intent on only handing back once his demands are met.
But with the theft now a national scandal, Bunton needs to meticulously plan each move, while being just as wary about the threat from within his own household.
Playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman certainly bring an ear for dialogue and sharp, snappy scenes to The Duke, ensuring the pace never drags and has more in common with an Ealing caper than the sometimes drawn-out dramas of the Thatcher-era lookbacks of the
90s and noughties.
Indeed, Michell’s use of splitscreens, jaunty tone and veteran composer George Fenton’s upbeat score actually evoke memories of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.
And while some may bridle at the liberties taken with events (especially significantly reducing the amount of time the Duke was absent from the National Gallery), there are quite a few surprises in store, some of which are the result of information about the theft only revealed to the public about a decade ago.
Don’t just dismiss it as feel-good froth either. At its heart, The Duke also presents a dual study of grief, as the Buntons attempt to deal with their daughter’s tragic death years earlier, in very different ways.
One of the hallmarks of Michell’s movies was his ability to strike the right balance between pathos and pithy humour.
From Venus to The Mother and last year’s Blackbird, it was something he proved especially adroit at, and The Duke is no exception. A crowd-pleasing caper, yes, but one with a little more substance than its premise suggests.
❚ After advance screenings in select cinemas, The Duke opens nationwide from March 31.