'The Duke': Film Review | Venice 2020

'The Duke'
Courtesy of PATHE ENTERTAINMENT

'The Duke'

Clever from the title on down.

Jim Broadbent plays a thief with noble intentions and Helen Mirren his grief-hardened wife in Roger Michell’s account of a real-life art theft.

A funny-moving story enjoyably retold with classic British understatement and just the right twist at the end, The Duke is the account of an incredible true event from 1961, when a man from the working-class north of England climbed through a bathroom window into London’s National Gallery one night and stole a valuable painting of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. His motive was charity.

The fact that the perp is a lovable old head-in-the-clouds social reformer played by Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren is his brooding, resentful wife gives the incident, directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill and My Cousin Rachel fame, a deeper satisfaction. Though television plays a key part of the plot and will no doubt be where The Duke finally comes to hang on the wall, Michell keeps the action theatrically fast-moving and the mood free. This out-of-comp Venice premiere is being released in UK cinemas in time for the BAFTA awards and could hit the spot for those who love a cheery English comedy with social overtones.

Wittily written by screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, the tale feels like a cross between a post-war Ealing Studios comedy and a sunnier Ken Loach. Michell keeps it light, so that even the threat of a long prison sentence doesn’t dampen the otherworldly social idealism of 60-ish hero Kempton Bunton (Broadbent), a fired taxi driver who wants to reform English society.

It all begins with a small rebellion. Bunton refuses to pay the universal TV license fee on the grounds that he has removed the BBC wiring from the family’s ancient TV set. When busted by the BBC police (or whoever the two officials who turn up in his living room are), he prefers to spend a fortnight in jail rather than budge on his principles. Foolish perhaps, but Bunton immediately endears himself with his stand.

In a dirt-poor section of Newcastle, the Buntons eke out a living with their grown sons Jackie and Kenny. The boys apparently flit in and out of trouble with the law, which surprises no one, given the setting. The most sensible member of the family is frau Dorothy (Mirren). Despite the family’s economic straits, she keeps the hearth going with her work as a housemaid for Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), a society lady of liberal views. In her crimped hair and big glasses, Mirren gives the sharp-tongued, resentful Dorothy interest and depth, but she’s not the focus of the story.

That would be Broadbent’s Bunton, a homespun Yorkshire philosopher who campaigns on street corners for free public TV for the poor. Against a jazzy shot of trash-ridden streets and the smoking factory chimneys of a Yorkshire town, Bunton climbs on his soapbox, megaphone in hand, assisted by his loyal post-teenage son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). But the only signature they can get in support of free TV is Mrs. Gowling’s. Despite his good intentions, he loses one job after another because he stands up to the disrespect and racism of his bosses. In a Chaplin-esque scene in a bakery, we watch bread loaves fall off a conveyor belt while he pontificates.

A great fan of Chekov and a self-taught playwright (book on desk: How to Write a Play) with years of rejection letters from the BBC to prove it, he uses his writing as therapy to process the death his daughter Marian, who was killed at 18 on a bicycle he gave her. He blames himself and Dorothy refuses to confront the tragedy, so that the two have grown apart with the passing years.

Then they hear the news that the National Gallery in London has paid 140,000 pounds for Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, and unbeknownst to Dorothy, a plan is hatched to “borrow” the painting to finance free TV licenses for the poor and elderly.

Two days in London whizz by in a montage of archive images from the 60s that appear in drop-down windows that looked mod at the time, while George Fenton’s cheerful score bubbles with playfulness. Though Bunton fails to see any decision-makers at the BBC and gets thrown out of Parliament when he unfurls a protest banner, by the time he returns home he’s in possession of the Duke. Jackie helps him hide it in an upstairs closet, and Dad mails a ransom note from a nearby town. You don’t have to know details of the story to guess the outcome. Scotland Yard and the Home Office suspect “the Italians,” despite getting a totally accurate profile of the thief from a handwriting expert. They never catch him.

But when an unexpected event forces Bunton’s hand, he returns the painting in person and faces the music in court. Represented by aristocratic barrister Jeremy Hutchinson (a cool Matthew Goode), the accused takes the stand in an exhilarating trial scene out of Brecht. Finding himself in the national spotlight, including in the pages of the Daily Mirror (“the workers’ paper”), he touts the worth of Everyman, much to the joy of the public gallery and, it should be said, the audience.

Understatement and off-handedness remain the key to the film and even if the trial leaves one a little choked up and teary, there is still a great gag to come: the scene from Dr. No in which James Bond is startled to see a certain painting in the antagonist’s living room. Now we know why he looks so surprised.

Production company: Neon Films
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriters: Richard Bean, Clive Coleman
Producer: Nicky Bentham
Co-producer: Michael Constable
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Production designer: Kristina Milsted
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editor: Kristina Hetherington
Music: George Fenton
Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition)
World sales: Pathe International
96 minutes