Jim Broadbent is an idealistic (and wholly unsuccessful) poet who doesn’t think he should have to pay to watch telly in The Duke, the latest (and final) film from dear departed British director Roger Michell. Michell directed Hugh Grant at his floppiest-haired and most charmingly befuddled, and had the good sense to pull out of helming that second Craig-era Bond film that no one likes nor remembers. He has my everlasting respect and his new true-crime caper, starring two legends of British cinema and one of the late 18th century romance period, goes down like a hot cuppa on a practically freezing 24 degree evening.
It’s 1961 and Broadbent is Kempton “that can’t be a real name” Bunton, a spirited Geordie who enjoys picketing parliament with working class issues and writing plays that never get produced. He’s an endearingly insufferable man whose escapades render his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) justifiably cross, but she (along with the rest of society) can’t seem to stay mad at him for long. Kempton spends his days avoiding the TV licence police (a real thing prior to 2000) and getting fired from various entry level jobs through such means as standing up for the civil rights of his colleagues and failing to charge disabled veterans for their taxi rides. His intentions are admirable but he’s not one familiar with the phrase “charity begins at home”, as Dorothy’s passive aggressive knitting is becoming a little too frequent.
While (illegally) watching the BBC one day, the family learns of the National Gallery’s pricey acquisition of Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, a rather wanky and tame predecessor to such fantastical horror pieces as Saturn Devouring His Son and Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat), produced by Goya in his tormented last days. Kempton surmises that this painting is “not very good, is it?”, a quip to hide the pained outrage at the thought of just how many telly licences could have been purchased and provided to pensioners for the same value. He begs Dorothy to allow him to make a totally unrelated trip to London for two days to allow his campaign to gain traction in parliament and to sell his scripts to the BBC, after which he’ll return and definitely get a job.
What follows is a charming tale of family loyalty, wardrobes with false backs and ransom letters not quite up to the standard set by the Zodiac killer. Michell pulls from his CV and blends that particular brand of British comedy from Notting Hill with hints of the intrigue and mystery of Enduring Love and My Cousin Rachel, with wildly pleasing (if slightly sugary) results. There is a slight sense of disbelief that seeps in as the story starts to wind itself up a little too neatly and I had to remind myself that the events on which the film is based are true. Broadbent and Mirren are also significantly older than their real-life counterparts and it’s hard to keep a straight face when Kempton proudly announces that he’s 60. But such gripes melt away a little each time we’re treated to Broadbent and Mirren’s beautifully oddball on-screen relationship.
The ways in which Kempton and Dorothy deal with their working class pitfalls differ so greatly that we wonder how they’ve managed to stay together so long. Kempton prefers a stint in jail over paying for a licence he can technically afford and seems to genuinely enjoy going out in a blaze of glory in the probation stage of employment. Dorothy is surrounded by wealth during her work day and certainly feels the pressure of being the figurative breadwinner (Kempton briefly works at a bread factory but you don’t need to see the film to know how that turns out). Housekeeper to a councillor and his curiously liberal wife, Dorothy worries what influence her husband’s antics will have on her own employment and standing in society. And somehow, despite all this, the pair still find time for an afternoon cuppa together and an impromptu dance in their cosy little kitchen. Broadbent and Mirren exude that English Grandparent energy that I witnessed on trips to the hills during childhood and it was lovely to be taken back to that place.
I can’t speak to the real Kempton Bunton’s charm but it’s here in droves in Jim Broadbent’s gorgeously hopeful performance. Never dissuaded by setbacks (even very sad ones), his Kempton has a resilience only present in the most secure creatives (whose wives are there to financially support them). A thousand rejection letters won’t stop him from writing plays, and a thousand hands throwing him out of a government building won’t dampen his resolve to help the less fortunate. He is, at times, an absolute buffoon who should probably read the room, but few are immune to the combo of a North-East English accent and a wool vest.
The Duke is a comforting last hug from a director who left us too soon. Certain audiences will perhaps get more out of it than others (my mother, for instance – a nostalgic, English Boomer whose love for yesteryear is matched only by her love for tea) but there’s enough in the blend to warm the hearts of all who take a sip. 7/10.
The Duke is in cinemas March 31st. Bring a Thermos and a packet of Digestives.