As box office figures stage a welcome recovery, new releases are still playing catch up. Death On The Nile was originally scheduled to be the big Christmas film of 2019, next month’s Ali and Ava made its debut at last year’s Cannes and this week’s The Duke has been waiting in the wings since its first appearance at Venice in September 2020. Yet, nearly 18 months down the line, this endearing fanfare for the common man has been definitely worth the wait.
It’s also tinged with a certain sadness, but the last film from Notting Hill director, Roger Michell, who sadly passed away last year, is a delight with more than the occasional nostalgic glance in the direction of Ealing. Based on the story of Kempton Bunton, who hit the headlines in the early 60s after stealing Goya’s portrait of the Duke Of Wellington from the National Gallery, it builds up to the theft by looking at the man himself – his home life and his tetchy relationship with wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), his political views and eccentricities – in an underdog story that depicts him as a man ahead of his time.
He’s no saint – his dodgy dealings and inability to hold down a job are at least partly the reason for Dorothy’s permanently embittered look and tone of voice – but, as played by Jim Broadbent, it’s impossible not to warm to him. Self-taught and a fan of Chekhov instead of Shakespeare (he wrote “too many plays about kings”), he’s a part time playwright himself, although you suspect his style is more Ernie Wise than classical. In his shabby Newcastle terraced house, where he hides the painting in the wardrobe, his life is a million miles away from the privilege of the Duke of Wellington. For him, the £140,000 price tag on that portrait, paid out of the public purse, would have been better spent on TV licenses for pensioners. He’s already spent time in prison for non-payment of his own.
This isn’t an out-and-out comedy, however. An element of tragedy, the real cause of the tension between husband and wife, lingers underneath the surface and, as was the custom at the time, is never talked about. That, together with the re-creation of Newcastle as a grimy, out-of-touch city that hardly exists to anybody living in London, makes for a sharply accurate portrait of this country in the early 60s, a time when rationing was still within memory and the social revolution associated with the decade was still to come. It seems like an eternity ago, but it’s not. As a tribute to its director, the film’s a charmer, one clearly made by people who love British comedy but which never loses touch with the essence of its story and its setting.
The Duke is an undeniable crowd-pleaser, from the loveable idealist at its centre, to its stirring – and frequently hilarious – climax when Bunton stands trial at the Old Bailey. True, it’s old fashioned in some ways, but there’s so much heart in its storytelling that the ending comes with a built-in smile of satisfaction. You may even want to applaud.
Drama, Comedy | Cert: 12A | UK Cinemas, 25 February 2022 | Pathe | Dir. Roger Michell | Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin.