Film Review: The Duke (2020)

Roger Michell’s hugely enjoyable and wonderfully warm-hearted film The Duke stars Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren

“Be sure to use the coasters. You’re not in Leeds now”

Few of us get to choose the way we’re remembered but you have to think Roger Michell wouldn’t mind the sentimental warmth of The Duke being his last feature film to grace our screens. Michell sadly died last year, the pandemic having intervened to delay the release of this film which played festivals in 2020 and in some ways, it is a shame distributors didn’t go for a on-demand or hybrid release as its warmth makes you feel it would have been a lockdown hit.

Written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, the film follows the remarkably true story of the theft from the National Gallery of the Goya painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Newcastle OAP Kempton Bunton. Bunton was a restless soul aka a crotchety old man, unable to hold a job for any length of time. But he was a dreamer too, a terminally unpublished writer and social revolutionary, briefly imprisoned for not paying his TV license and campaigning for free ones for all UK OAPs.

The Duke is anchored by a simply wonderful performance from Jim Broadbent as Bunton, wryly charming when he wants to be but more often than not, exasperating and exhausting in his bloody-mindedness, no twinkle-eyed salt-of-the-earth stereotype but something (a little) closer to working class reality. He’s matched well by Helen Mirren as his wife Dorothy, elevating an underwritten part by pouring huge unspoken emotion into her every harrumpf.

As we follow the path of the painting from heist to ransom to court case, you can’t help but be moved along with it, utterly beguiled by the charm of the movie as Michell deploys sentimentality with absolute precision. Bunton gets his moment in the sun when he’s called to the dock and turns out to be a cracking stand-up (Heather Craney’s clerk, unable to suppress her smile is brilliant here) and the idealism of his socialist message is like the warmest of hugs. The twist in the tale is satisfying too and with a supporting cast that includes John Heffernan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Charles Edwards, Sian Clifford and more, The Duke is certainly a winner.

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