Film review: ‘THE DUKE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The Duke

We recently had the fascinating SBS documentary Framed which recalled the infamous 1986 theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria. Less known to us here in Australia is that 25 years earlier there’d been a similar incident in England when 61-year-old Kempton Bunton apparently took a painting of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya from the National Gallery of London and sent a ransom note to police asking that aged pensioners be given an exemption from having to pay for tv licences to watch the BBC.

Rather than the theft of the painting and its significance in the world of art and culture, which was the focus of Framed, The Duke is about Bunton and his grass roots, quasi-socialist everyman beliefs. As a local activist who held court in the street spruiking for various causes, Bunton seemed strongly motivated by social justice, at one point forfeiting a job to stand up to a racist boss who had abused a Pakistani worker. Bunton’s tendency to lose work and find trouble was a constant source of irritation for his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) who, according to the film, basically kept them going by toiling as a cleaner. Their relationship was also struggling under an ever-present cloud of grief due to their teenage daughter’s accidental death a decade earlier.

The always enjoyable Jim Broadbent plays Bunton in, well, typical Jim Broadbent style as a quirky, endearing senior citizen with a mischievous edge.  He portrays him as an intelligent, literate, decent if slightly kooky and misguided human being.  In lesser hands the character’s recklessness could have been infuriating and his moral stands could have come across as hectoring self-righteousness rather than the touching pleas for fairness and human decency which they are here.

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), in what sadly turned out to be his last feature film (he also directed a documentary Elizabeth: A Portrait in Three Parts about the Queen which comes out later in the year), makes fine use of that ever-fascinating world of London in the 1960’s.  This is pre-Beatles England so he doesn’t overamp the references to the burgeoning cult of cool Britannia but captures some its nascent energy and style amid the lingering gloom of post-war Britain.

There are a couple of issues with this otherwise fine film.  It’s a little repetitive with a cycle of scenes involving Kempton doing something fishy then trying to hide or rationalise if to a fed-up Dorothy. Also, the depiction of women is somewhat limited as many of them seem to be humourless, officious or even bitter characters.  Helen Mirren’s Dorothy is also somewhat underwritten.

Fortunately, though, this heart-warming film’s low-key charm, its important and moving story of someone standing up for the little people and the essential decency and humour of its central character overcome its lesser moments.

Nick’s rating:    1/2.

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Roger Michell.

Release date: 31st Mar 2022.

Running time: 96 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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