The Duke is playing in theatres nationwide now.
The story of The Duke is innately simple and yet surprisingly unbelievable: ‘what if your grandfather stole the Mona Lisa?’ Roger Michell’s final feature follows the real-life story of Kempton Bunton, played by the British institution that is Jim Broadbent, an elder-in-revolt, amateur scriptwriter and dedicated campaigner for social justice, petitioning for free TV licenses for the elderly and veterans amongst other causes. Bunton’s political activism is much to the delight of his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), who would rather fade away into obscurity. There is evident unspoken tension at the heart of their marriage from their daughter’s tragic demise.
Broadbent’s Bunton feels as though he’s leapt out of a Beano comic – the chaotic rebel with a heart of gold, a Geordie Robin Hood dedicating himself to helping those the government has left behind. He emits such a sweetly charming demeanour, and the Buntonian philosophy that’s weaved throughout feels like lessons your grandfather would bestow upon you. Broadbent, Mirren and Whitehead make a wonderful family, quintessentially British in their quibble and fights, made up for with peace offerings of cuppas and ginger biscuits. Broadbent and Mirren’s Kenton and Dorothy couldn’t be better matched. One is outwardly charismatic if not slightly barmy, whilst the other operates as a bristly foil who invites audience empathy, even in their more temperamental moments.
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The Duke flows marvellously – its three-act structure set around the classic heist, with The Set-Up, The Escape, and The Aftermath. This traditional structure is fortified by integrating technically creative touches such as splicing Broadbent into vintage London footage during his theft of Goya’s painting from The National Gallery, instilling The Duke with a classic and timeless quality. Its upbeat tone helps us feel the film itself has been stolen and transported to our modern day. There’s an endearing optimism to The Duke that comes entirely from the real-life figure himself. Here Bunton’s dedication to social causes and upholding the common good is the lifeforce that threads through Broadbent’s portrayal.
Despite the rallying cry of optimism, The Duke carefully ensures it never overflows into twee territory. Here Bunton’s defence of a Pakistani co-worker does little in the moment. Still, his appearance at Kempton’s trial later underlines the significance of such an action on the worker and the importance of doing something right even if it feels like nothing will come of it. Likewise, Michell’s work is twinged with a touch of melancholy. There’s a poignant sadness to the Bunton family through the loss of their daughter and a dichotomy in how Kempton and Dorothy have responded to this tragedy. One wishes to talk and air their grief while the other locks it up from prying eyes. This unspoken rift between the pair is the source of The Duke’s most tender moments.
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The Duke feels like a comical spin on the typical British caper of the 1950s and 1960s, echoing The Ladykillers and The Italian Job in its innately British witticisms, often fired straight from Bunton’s mouth to all who will listen. He treats courtrooms like a comedy club and rarely falters in his cheery, uplifting disposition.
Bunton’s story is extraordinarily sensational, to the point of disbelief. Maybe that’s why it’s the perfect story for our current time. After all, even in the most impossible of odds, there is the chance for goodness to prevail over institutions such as our government if we believe in each other and band together over a shared faith in what is right. When our morale in government, and perhaps our nation as a whole, is at an all-time low, stories like Bunton’s feel like rich artefacts that remind us that there is power in the individual’s actions.
Roger Michell’s final feature is a touching swan song to his career: a remarkably intelligent script with impeccable direction that never, ever, falters from its cheerful optimism. This film is the warm embrace that this country needs right now, the whisper of a grandfather’s stories in your ear, terrifically comforting and ridiculously charming.
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Roger Michell’s final feature is a touching swan song to his career: a remarkably intelligent script with impeccable direction that never, ever, falters from its cheerful optimism.