Director: Roger Michell
Writers: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mathew Goode
It’s taken a year and a half for The Duke to finally receive a release in the UK, after being shown at Venice Film Festival in 2020. Thanks to covid, the film faced delays and ended up with a new distributor before seeing a general release. It’s finally here and it’s more than worth the wait.
Based on a true story, The Duke tells the story of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a working-class man in his sixties who in the 1960s was arrested for stealing the portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. His mission is to bring about change for the poorer in society, believing that the money spent to keep the portrait in London could have gone to paying for the TV licences of older people who can’t afford it.
The Duke is an incredibly charming and funny film. Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, who plays Kempton’s wife Dorothy Bunton, are absolutely phenomenal with outstanding performances. There is so much chemistry between them and every scene they share the screen together is a real treat. They feel like a real old married couple with bickering, and their different outlooks. Broadbent brings all his usual charisma to the role, making Kempton an instantly likable character. The scenes with him on trial, winning of the courtroom and jury are funny, and actually based on the court transcripts as well.
Visually the film is stunning, as it recreates the smoke-filled skies of the 1960s. It looks authentic and you would completely believe that it was made fifty years ago. There’s also a nice use of what looks like archive footage of London during Kempton’s trip, where Broadbent is spliced into it. There’s that nostalgia inducing grainy texture to everything, and it looks good.
While it is a heart-warming and friendly comedy the film does have some dark undertones to it. Kempton and Dorothy lost their daughter in a bicycle crash and don’t ever talk about it. The incident has driven a wedge between them, with Kempton blaming himself as he bought her the bike. To deal with his grief Kempton has been writing plays and sending them to the BBC, which are returned rejected. Dorothy doesn’t see the point in talking about it, as nothing can be changed. It’s genuinely sad, and elevated further by just hon good Mirren and Broadbent are in the roles.
A little spoiler warning, there’s a twist around two-thirds of the way through that you don’t see coming at all. It’s used perfectly, in that you don’t believe it at first, but it settles down. It’s one of the best deliver twists ever, with plenty of people saying they didn’t see that coming as we left the screen.
Director Roger Michell, who sadly died between finishing the film and its release, wonderfully tells a story that’s about community and the goodness in people. It’s an interesting small slice of relatively modern history, that still feels relevant today. The cast are excellent and it’s a purely a wonderful little film that shouldn’t be missed.
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