The Duke
"There's some lovely family-driven humour in the script by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman delivered with great comic timing by the veteran leads." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

If there's one thing the British can't get enough of, it's our own eccentricity and The Duke stems from a fine lineage that also includes the likes of Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots and The Phantom Of The Open. Roger Michell's final fiction feature before his death, at 65, last year, is a gentle charmer that centres on the true and bizarre story of the 1961 theft of Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London's National Gallery.

Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), is more likely lad than likely thief. An ageing radical, with playwrighting aspirations, he lives with his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, in the sort of role usually reserved for Judi Dench) in Benwell, near the banks of the River Tyne. In the sort of move that perfectly encapsulated his character, he has removed the BBC coil from his telly while refusing to pay the licence fee as part of a campaign to secure free licences for pensioners and veterans. Home life with younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), and occasional visits from their elder boy Kenny (Jack Bandiera) is marred not just by Kempton repeatedly losing jobs for his rebellious ways but by a grief of losing their daughter Marion, which he and Dorothy don't talk about, with he instead turning it into a play and she venting her negative energies on her cleaning job.

Kempton promises a return from a trip to the BBC in London will mark the start of a new chapter for them but what she doesn't know is that they now have a £140,000 painting hiding behind a false back in their wardrobe and that her husband has hatched a plan. Michell handles all of this with a verve and a lightness of touch that is aiming and hitting the Ealing vein, as this average Joe does a much less than average thing. Broadbent handles the Geordie accent with aplomb, and lets a sort of twinkly charm emanate from Kempton, while never letting us forget this is a man who has been touched by loss. Mirren doesn't quite have the same handle on the lilt, but she gets the essence of Dorothy, who is as quick witted as her husband even if not as well read. There's some lovely family-driven humour in the script by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman delivered with great comic timing by the veteran leads.

Michell meanwhile finds contrast between the movement of Sixties London and the comparative inertia of the family home in the north-east. Although the external scenes suffer from rather obvious CGI smoke stacks and a general aura of a stage musical, the cramped confines of the Bunton house is perfectly realised, right down to the last ornament and it's suddenly easy to see why, a decade later, people began opting for home decorating colours like avocado and pink as a response to the drabness of what had gone before. Guilt and innocence become less important than charitable intent in a good natured crowdpleaser that proves unexpectedly moving and is a quiet celebration of mice that roar.

Reviewed on: 12 Jun 2022
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The story of a taxi driver who stole a Goya from London's National Gallery and began to send ransom notes.


Venice 2020

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