The Duke

M, 95 minutes

5 Stars

Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent with The Duke.                Image courtesy Transmission


Review by © Jane Freebury

When a portrait by a Spanish master went missing in 1961 from the National Gallery in London, it could only mean one thing. Master thieves at work.

Whoever it was who was responsible for lifting Francisco Goya’s painting of the first Duke of Welllington, the British hero of the Battle of Waterloo, from one of the country’s foremost cultural institutions, had to be well-funded and highly professional. When briefing the government about this national embarrassment, London’s top police were certain it was the work of an international criminal gang. Other experts advising them were not quite so sure.

Of course, we’re all in on the joke in this priceless comedy based on a real-life story from Roger Michell, the South African-born British director who passed away last year.

A quixotic taxi driver who spends more time chatting to his passengers than getting them to their destinations on time

There was nothing slick about the perpetrators. It was just a quixotic Newcastle taxi driver sacked from his job for spending more time talking to his passengers, than getting them to their destinations on time. Oh, and there was another thing. He gave a war veteran a ride for free.

Sixty-year-old Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) could have been excused for feeling he’d had enough. It was the early 1960s, many years since WWII ended, but life was still a tough grind for the ordinary man. To the distraction of his wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren) he was more focused on writing plays to offer the BBC than keeping his new job in a bakery. He managed to get himself fired from that too.

It’s life’s inequities that Brunton, an autodidact with socialist ideals, is focused on. Like the fact that after a lifetime of paying taxes, British pensioners had to pay for a television licence to receive the BBC. What had the world come to? After nearly a fortnight in prison for refusing to buy one, he takes to the streets to campaign.

Jim Broadbent in The Duke. Image courtesy Transmission


Then he hears that the government has managed to find enough money to keep The Duke in the country, stopping it from being sold to an overseas buyer. Just think of how many television licences that amount of money would subsidise?

The couple’s two adult sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira), are themselves at rather a loose end, while Dorothy carries on valiantly with her work as a cleaner. It is a bit difficult getting used to the glamorous Mirren in this role, worn down and spikey, seemingly keeping all her boys in line, but hers is a critical part. Dorothy’s lines are the source of a lot of the film’s humour.

The Duke sticks closely to the facts of the real-life story, though the real Bunton was an overweight bus driver who it is hard to imagine slipping through a narrow toilet window. However, in both real and fictionalised versions of this story, there is more to the theft than meets the eye.

There have of course been other famously successful heists by amateurs. When the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre last century, an Italian man had simply taken it down when no one was looking and walked out with it under his overalls. The empty space it occupied on the wall became a sensation. During the two years it was missing, crowds queued for hours to view the spot where it used to hang.

The Duke’s portrait, hilariously critiqued by Bunton as he has a closer look at it once he’s home, is unlikely to benefit in a similar way.

Old-fashioned it may be, but the revolutionary spirit of this gloriously absurd comedy about a masterpiece borrowed for the greater good, sits well at any time

Michell was at the top of his game when directing this funny, generous, beautifully calibrated comedy about one of life’s eccentrics. How can we forget he was responsible for one of the best romantic comedies ever, Nothing Hill?

Based on a screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, The Duke evokes a mixture of influences. The jaunty 1960s crime caper with its split-screen montages and breezy, jazzy score. British social realism with wonderful performances by Broadbent and Mirren terrific as working class battlers. And there is also a touch of Ealing, the dark comedies of the 1940s-50s that offered an escape from grim drudgery in postwar Britain.

Old-fashioned it may be, but the revolutionary spirit of this gloriously absurd comedy about a masterpiece that was borrowed for the greater good, will sit well at any time.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 April 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes