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The Duke

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
The Duke
Photograph: Nick Wall
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Jim Broadbent is a riot in this eccentric and touching real-life heist caper

The Duke is a film that has one national treasure (Jim Broadbent) playing another national treasure (Geordie cabbie, social campaigner and wannabe playwright Kempton Bunton), who was accused of stealing another national treasure (Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duke of Wellington’) from the National Gallery in 1961.

The setting harks back to an era of British life that suddenly feels a lot less distant. With the experience of lockdowns and that Clap for Carers communal spirit fresh in all of our minds, it’s dead easy to rally behind Bunton’s quixotic efforts to secure free TV licences for pensioners – and even his roundabout route to wanted art thief. Access to the telly is, he reasons, the only link many elderly citizens have with their fellow Brits – and the world at large. Stealing the portrait might just get the attention of the nation.

Before the plot gets anywhere near its Thomas Crown-esque middle stretch, in which the painting is pinched in a nocturnal raid via the gallery bins, co-writers Clive Coleman and Richard Bean take time to set up Bunton and his long-suffering wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren, dialling back to give extra space to her co-star), as a couple in working-class Newcastle. Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) is an energetic presence as the couple’s supportive but reckless son, Jackie.

Soon, Kempton is fired from his taxi company for giving free rides to struggling locals and running foul of TV licensers for jerry-rigging his telly so it only shows commercial channels. ‘It negates the imperative on me to pay the licence fee,’ he harrumphs. ‘It’s an unfair tax on ordinary people, especially the oldies who can’t afford it.’

Jim Broadbent could play a despot and make you wish he was your uncle 

For The Duke to work, Bunton needs to be likeable even when he’s being pig-headed and annoying. Enter Broadbent, an actor who could play a despot and make you wish he was your uncle. He and Mirren have a lovely chemistry as a couple tethered by a shared sorrow and a deep love. This portrait of a weather-beaten but resilient marriage could slip by as unnoticed as the beige wallpaper in their terraced house, but in these fine actors’ hands it hits you in the feels.

Bunton’s socialist philosophy – ‘I am you, you are me’, as he frames it – is articulated best by his defence barrister (Matthew Goode) as the film heads into courtroom-drama mode. But he’s the exception in a film where social standing isn’t the barrier to smarts, ambition and culture that the powers-that-be think it is. The Duke has fun throughout in leaping back and forth across that social divide to show a ruling class too snobbish to imagine the culprit could be anything other than a gang of international art thieves. We’re shown a clip from Dr No on the Buntons’ TV to reinforce that unconscious bias that it’s Bond villains, not cabbies who steal priceless art.

It’s about the little man sticking two fingers up to the establishment 

The late director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) maps out this world of fuming officials, foiled cops and uncaring newspaper editors with a mix of sincerity and sly humour, giving domestic events equal billing with national ones. One token racism subplot aside, it juggles big ideas of social justice with more intimate moments of family life beautifully.

Most of all, and very much in the spirit of classic Ealing comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob and Whisky Galore!, his final movie is about the little man sticking two fingers up to the establishment. It might even restore your faith in the social contract – at least, until you remember that they just got rid of free TV licences for the oldies. Maybe the National Gallery should double security? 

In UK cinemas Feb 25.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Screenwriter:Richard Bean, Clive Coleman
  • Cast:
    • Jim Broadbent
    • Fionn Whitehead
    • Helen Mirren
    • Anna Maxwell Martin
    • Roger Michell
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