Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are not just thespian royalty in the UK, they have both been crowned winners at previous Venice festivals: Mirren for her regal performance in Stephen Frears’ The Queen and Broadbent for his portrayal of W. S. Gilbert in Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy. Together, they appear in The Duke, Roger Michell’s highly entertaining spin on a remarkable true story from 1960s Britain.
The duke in question is the Duke of Wellington, specifically a portrait painted by Goya that was purchased for £140,000 by the British government in 1961 in order for it to remain in the country. The purchase is all over the news and throngs of visitors make their way to the National Gallery in London to view it.
But this tale does not take place in the soon to be swinging capital. The setting is Newcastle upon Tyne, home to the garrulous Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) and his long-suffering wife, Lilya (Mirren). Bunton is an autodidact, a playwright (sending countless scripts to the BBC) and a protestor. His latest foe is the government, which he aims to take to task for making pensioners – many of them former soldiers in World War I – pay the TV licence fee. He even endures a brief spell in Durham prison for his refusal to pay. Kempton is often out of work, getting fired for mouthing off, and money is scarce in the family home. Lilya cleans the local councillor’s home (the lady of the house is played by Michell’s wife, the eminently watchable Anna Maxwell Martin) and then scrubs her own home to within an inch of its life. Her constant cleaning and his constant battles are the couple’s coping mechanisms for dealing with the loss of their daughter in a cycling accident. The Buntons have two sons, one (Jack Bandeira) a feckless ne’er do well living in Leeds, the other (Fionn Whitehead) an aspiring boat builder still at home but desperate to leave.
When Kempton sees that the government has forked out a fortune for the Goya, he decides to ‘kidnap’ the painting and use the ransom money to pay for pensioners’ licence fees. So, this is a heist movie, but not as weknow it. Broadbent shines as the avuncular thief and Mirren allows him to do so. Bunton’s a natural scene stealer, all sparkle with a gift for rhetoric, while his wife is out of the limelight doing all the hard work. Both the characters and the actors playing them are the perfect double act.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is the fact that very few of us knew it. The portrait, which in reality was returned years later, made it into Dr No in 1962, so powerful was its image in the public memory. Even Bunton’s defence attorney, Jeremy Hutchinson – here played by the dashing Matthew Goode – was Peggy Ashcroft’s husband.
Cinematically, there is nothing new here, but what it does do is tell an incredible story very entertainingly. That is thanks to the screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, which whizzes along at a fine pace. It is a quintessentially British film, from its endless cups of tea to its humour via dark satanic mills and hapless bobbies. It is as sweet as the ginger snaps the Buntons dunk into their tea but is never cloying. This is mainly thanks to Broadbent, whose Bunton treads a fine line between jolly entertainer and boorish troublemaker. Brexit-voting pensioners will love it, what with its glimpse of a pre-decimalised Britain and even a rousing (and completely gratuitous) chorus of Jerusalem. But it would be mean-spirited to view the film as some kind of propaganda particularly as there doesn’t seem to be a mean bone in its body. So, if you fancy a walk down memory lane while being entertained by a fine troupe of actors spinning a great yarn, then The Dukewill be just your cup of tea.