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The Duke

Director – Roger Michell – 2020 – UK – Cert. 12a – 96m

**1/2

A man steals Goya’s painting of The Duke Of Wellingon from the National Gallery in 1961… Based on a true story – out to rent on PVoD on Monday, April 11th

1960s Newcastle. Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) wages a one-man war against pensioners paying the licence fee. He removes the BBC coil so that the set will only play ITV. His wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), a cleaner for the wife of a local councillor, just wants him to behave like every else and try and fit in. Seeing the nation pay £140 000 to stop Goya’s painting of The Duke Of Wellington being sold abroad, he can only think of how much better the money could be spent – how many pensioners’ TV licences it could cover, for example.

Thus, he takes a trip to London to deliver an unsolicited manuscript of a play to the BBC, then lobby both Parliament and the press (The Daily Express) about free licences. All of which endeavours meet with failure. However, a plan to steal The Duke from the National Gallery works and the painting is soon in his back bedroom, where son Jack (Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, 2017) bills a false wall in the wardrobe to help him hide it. 

Unfortunately, the script – or at least the version of it on the screen – falls between several stools. Who was Bunton? A nutcase? A fool? A working class hero? A visionary? A left wing idealist? It doesn’t seem to know what to make of him and tries desperately hard not to offend any of the audience demographic. It’s so busy trying to please everyone that it ends up having no view. That’s a pity because Bunton is an intriguing real life character and I immediately wanted to know more about him and his family.

Then, if all these left wing ideas are floating around, we have a working class family one of whom works for the wife of a comparatively well off councillor (we’re not told of what political stripe, but judging by the supportive attitude of the councillor’s wife to Kempton’s ideals I would guess Labour) yet the film again takes no position but simply shows us different facets of 1960s English life.

A frame story (no pun intended) has Bunton on trial for the theft in Court One of the Old Bailey, pleading “Not Guilty”. The court proceedings are covered in the final reel with a spirited defence lawyer (Matthew Goode), a bored and long-suffering judge (James Wilby) and a clerk of the court desperately trying to conceal her amusement at the proceedings (Heather Craney). This element might, in and of itself, have furnished an entire film.

As for the two sons, Jack is a would be boat builder wishing to put together an honest business through hard work, while Ken (Jack Bandeira) is involved in criminal activities and gets into trouble with the courts. There might have been potential here too, but again, the film fails to explore this. Jack’s burgeoning romance with Irene (Aimée Kelly) provides a degree of love interest, while Ken’s decidedly more worldly girlfriend Pamela (Charlotte Spencer) discovers the painting and wants Kempton to split any profits 50/50.

The Buntons had previously lost their 18-year-old daughter; there’s a suggestion that all Kempton’s activities are his way of dealing with the resultant grief. That in itself might have made for another, very different film, but here it’s just one more element in the mix.

A few elements impress. Helen Mirren’s wife / cleaner / conformist is beautifully drawn (I had to blink when I realised it was her) and completely believable, a remarkable achievement considering how different the character is from what she usually does on the screen. A further subplot has Kempton taking a job in a bakery, only to get fired for defending an Indian co-worker against a racist foreman. Outside this compelling subplot, the idea isn’t explored.

In the end, the whole thing feels like someone picked a weak draft of a script that needed more work then ran with it. Or perhaps they tried to build the thing by committee – a likeable character, some romantic interest to appeal to a younger audience, a slice of working class life, a dash of the middle classes and professional lawyers to show that Britain is a fair and equal country (a highly contentious proposition). The real life incident and the character behind it are great material for a film, and something very special could have been made out of it. But not, sadly, with this script.

The Duke is out to rent on PVoD on Monday, April 11th.

Trailer:

UK cinemas from Friday, February 25th 2022.

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