Review: The Duke (2020)


The Duke (2020)

Directed by: Roger Michell | 95 minutes | biography, comedy, drama | Actors: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Aimée Kelly, Charlotte Spencer, Jack Bandeira, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sian Clifford, Heather Craney, James Wilby, John Heffernan

Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is an eccentric in the northern city of Newcastle in the early 1960s. Steeped in a strong sense of justice, he rebels against things that he sees as unfair. His wife Dorothy (Heren Mirren) is immensely annoyed that he often goes down fighting uncompromisingly. Kempton also writes plays on the “Adventures of Susan Christ” about what it would have been like if Jesus had been a woman. Unsurprisingly, these texts he sends to the BBC are not published or staged on television.

His biggest battle is against the TV license from the BBC, comparable to the viewing and listening fees in the Netherlands. Kempton believes that poor elderly and veterans should not have to pay for the transmission of the BBC signal. He even goes to jail for a short time because he refuses to pay his TV license.

Supported by cheerful jazzy music and frequent use of split screens, Kempton’s antics are performed lightly. ‘The Duke’ is based on a true story (more on that later) and director Roger Michell shows why this is an excellent example of a quintessential genre of British films that couldn’t be made anywhere else.

Soon something tragicomic also creeps into the film, which is greatly exploited by Broadbent with his good-looking lobed posture, drooping shoulders and sad dog look. Mirren, as always, is spotless as the ever-nurturing and concerned Dorothy. She is the one who has to keep the family going and mostly earn a living cleaning at the mansion of a local lawyer.

It soon becomes apparent that a great sadness stands between the older couple. Their daughter Marian died in an accident in 1948 during a bike ride and they never really talked about it. Their two sons Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira) teetering on the edge of crime and acting shadowy about their pursuits.

The story revolves around the theft of a famous painting. In 1961, the British government bought a portrait of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, painted by Francisco Goya for £140,000. Wellington is the one who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and would later be Prime Minister twice more. The portrait of the Duke (The Duke from the title) is on display at the National Gallery in London. Bunton thinks it’s really ridiculous that taxpayers’ money is being spent on this, because it allows a lot of TV licenses to be given to the elderly and veterans for free. And then… the portrait is stolen from the museum and ends up in a wardrobe in an annex of the Buntons.

Then a highly entertaining story unfolds, in which the police think of a professional Italian gang and Bunton and son Jackie try to keep everything from Dorothy. The film shows right from the start that Kempton will eventually have to answer to the judge, where he is assisted by the famous lawyer Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode). At the time, Hutchinson was married to famed actress Peggy Ashcroft and a society figure. Such a role is perfect for Goode and he steals the show in his scenes with flair and an ever ironic smile.

‘The Duke’ is a heartwarming film, about an unlikely underdog who pulls off an incredible stunt that makes the front pages of all the English newspapers. As mentioned, it is based on a true story, but the film does take a walk with reality here and there to make it all just a bit more beautiful. It’s funny that it was only discovered a few years ago that the fork was slightly different than expected. It appears in the film as a nice twist. And James Bond aficionados will also get their money’s worth: the film shows a scene from ‘Dr. No’ (1962), where Bond, played by Sean Connery, is surprised to find the missing painting in the villain’s collection.

‘The Duke’ turns out to be the last film from director Roger Michell, who died in September 2021, who previously directed the rom-com ‘Notting Hill’, the thriller ‘Changing Lanes’ and ‘Venus’, for which Peter O’Toole received his final Oscar nomination. With ‘The Duke’ Michell says goodbye with a beautiful bow.