Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 35 minutes, Director – Roger Michell
Amongst a string of late-life activism, in-and-out of work Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is put on trial for stealing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, in the hope of gaining free TV licenses for OAPs.
From the rotation of trailers The Duke has been largely pitched as a charming British farcical comedy. However, amongst the humour brought about via the idea of Jim Broadbent trying to hide the fact he’s in possession of artwork worth nearly £150,000 there’s an undeniable strand of drama attempting to emerge throughout. It’s what stops Helen Mirren’s Dorothy, wife to Broadbent’s Kempton, from being entirely sidelined throughout. As the occasional humour of the central narrative is shifted for conversations concerning grief, or rather the lack of conversation about it, between the central pair who have apparently spoken little about the death of their daughter Marian since it happened thirteen years before.
Instead, Kempton – charming from the opening stages – is resigned to writing about it, alongside a number of slightly more far-fetched ideas – titles include ‘The Adventures Of Susan Christ’ – sending off scripts to the BBC for Play For Today, to no response. While his wife cleans houses for people a fair deal wealthier than them (Anna Maxwell Martin plays employer Mrs. Gowling), we see the central sixty-year-old bounce from job to job, after almost always getting kicked out for reasons relating to his string of activism. The thing he’s largely concerned with is getting Free TV For The OAP. Why should veterans and the elderly have to pay to not be lonely in the comfort of their own home? Bunton, often equipped with an excellently sported pipe, removes the ability to be able to watch the BBC on his own set, meaning that he doesn’t have to pay the license fee just for advertiser-paid ITV. When he comes into possession of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, newly missing from the National Gallery after he makes a trip to London, he plans to use the money to put his hopes and plans into action.
It’s made clear that Kempton is a passionate figure about equality and people working together for “the greater good”, it’s part of what gets him kicked out of multiple jobs. Broadbent is wonderful in the role and allows moments more based in commentary to not be too bogged down by the subject and discussion, and still have an air of charm about them. He’s a likable figure and it proves for a number of chuckles during courtroom sequences when Kempton’s answering questions in the dock. However, the humour still contrasts to unspoken reflections to his and his wife’s past. The loss of their daughter which they don’t talk about, pointed out by son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). The drama clashes with the lighter, more comedic content, particularly when cut together and unfolding at exactly the same time the tonal imbalance is very clear.
Throughout the film there are patches where it’s clear that multiple ideas and elements are being juggled at the same time. Whether it comes to aims of the various characters at the heart of the piece, or simply the relationships that they have with each other and the conversations which they have to progress the narrative. While the various elements might work well enough by themselves it’s not always the case that they glue together to help with the overall flow of the film. There’s still a hint of charm, helped by the strong lead of Broadbent and Mirren’s fine supporting performance – particularly with the fluctuating amount that she gets to do – and generally the piece passes by well enough. The theft and hiding of the titular painting is largely kept as the central focus over the course of the short 95 minutes and while other strands and elements may poke their head around and create the occasional clash it all still builds up to a court trial where we’re allowed to see the true humour and generosity of Kempton Bunton.
It may have some dramatic clashes, and not every element quite glues together, but The Duke is held up by its charm, humour and strong performances from both Mirren and Broadbent.