“Not very good, is it?”
That's the verdict given to an extremely pricey Goya painting, that instead of sitting prominently in the National Gallery, is propped up in a cosy attic in Leeds, having been snatched away in the dead of night by an elderly activist. “Not very good.” Luckily, the warm, funny and ridiculously-based-on-a-true-story film depicting the true story around these events is very good. That film is The Duke, directed by Robert Michell and starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, who lead a murderer's row of outstanding British actors and somehow manage to articulate a lot about recent life without being directly about any of it.
What it is about is 60-year old Kempton Bunton (Broadbent – and yes, that's a real name), a dogged social critic and wannabe writer who can't keep his mouth shut from his socio-political opinions if his life or job depended on it – which it frequently does. He's been married to his wife Dorothy (Mirren) for a time now, with two sons coming in and out of the house. There was a daughter, but not anymore; and the way both husband and wife quietly deal with this tragedy forms some of The Duke's most affecting passages, when it's not relishing in being an out-and-out caper bowing at the alter of the great films of Frank Capra or comparatively recent, homegrown British stuff like A Fish Called Wanda.
Kempton is an ardent, fervent believer in social justice from the bottom-up, whether its his ongoing campaign for free TV licences for over-65s, not charging a taxi passenger since he's a disabled veteran, or standing up for a Pakistani worker after he gets verbally abused at the workplace. Luckily, Michell and the script don't ever veer into the tiring “white saviour” trope though – one of this film's gentle subversions is in how it acknowledges one of Kempton's flaws being that he feels like he has nothing to lose, despite his clear moral clarity, being so wedded to his cause that he sometimes forgets the immediate people in his life.
Someone like Dorothy, who diligently cleans houses of the uber-rich and doesn't really have time for anything other than work or the pursuit of it. She's bought completely into the system of working to the bone till you die – but Mirren is so reliably superb in the role that you realise that it's also broken her down a little bit in how she relates to and with people. She's both wearily used to Kempton's antics and still constantly surprised by them. And his latest one is nothing but surprising.
After seeing on their TV (which Kemp has meticulously rejiggled to remove the BBC wire so they don't have to pay their licence) that the government has bent over backwards caving out £140,000 to keep a Goya painting in the country, Kempton is furious. Not only is it money that could have gone to umpteen free TV licences for OAPs, but it's of the Duke of Wellington, who Kempton educates his younger son, Jackie (played by Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk and Black Mirror fame, thrillingly coming into his own) that he was against universal suffrage, and that spaffing all this money up the wall for something the spokesperson for the reveal event can only sheepishly describe as “an example of late-period Goya” – is a waste of money and time, not to mention how unimpressed he is with the design. He very much doesn't like flawed historical figures being lionised uncritically in artwork. Statues, anyone?
So naturally, he decides to nick the thing right out of the Gallery, to use it to extort the government into providing these TV licences. I won't spoil the exact ways he lifts it, but it ends with a reaction shot of another famous painting that's so funny it's worth the price of admission alone. Kempton then heads back to Leeds, quickly enlists Jackie as his closest ally to begin the extortion plan ‘to pick the pockets of those who appreciate art more than charity'.
The thing feels like a far more palatable version of Fargo, where the people make a big choice and have to constantly work at either digging themselves out of the hole, or deeper into it. This is also whilst the entire British establishment is nipping at their heels, desperate to atone for such an embarrassing cock-up from right under their noses. And when they begin to get closer, they theorise either an Italian gang or (correctly) a self-taught working class person, but only some rube in it for fame or glory. They cannot envision him doing it for something bigger.
And if we're talking Fargo logic, Kempton is alright because he is shown to be a truly good man despite his domestic shortcomings. Yes, his eyes are on the horizon instead of the many sunsets, but that's why he's so wonderful to watch. He's someone who's never given up on the possibility of something, anything better than the doldrums of a British society that's one foot barely out of rations – and it's a beautiful, infectious energy that moves like a warm hug through his community, and eventually the country. There are many moments where he is given the opportunity to twist his situation either for his own benefit or to throw somebody else under the bus, but he does the decent thing every time. It shows his relentlessness as somewhat of a detriment to his home life, but as an audience we want everyone to come around to his thinking, not for him to assimilate.
And Broadbent brings this man to life spectacularly, with the reliable warmth in his voice, spring in his step and twinkle in his eye that still seems to be burying some complex emotions under the surface. It's his best performance in years, and especially when paired with Mirren as a scene partner, who's traditional “enough of this bullshit!”-type housewife acting eventually revealing itself to be far more subtle and vulnerable than her character initially lets on. How they constantly have to renegotiate their relationship is The Duke at its most emotional, and it feels just as weighty as the Goya theft at times. This film makes small feel big, and big feel small, to really great effect.
Naturally, he eventually ends up in court, and whilst these sequences are somewhat rushed, a welcome Matthew Goode quickly endears the audience to Kempton's lawyer, and overall these are some of the most moving scenes I've watched in a film so far this year. Kempton on the stand is as brilliant and hilarious as you'd expect – he somewhat evokes a Greatest Generation version of Sacha Baron Cohen's evocation of Abbie Hoffman in the recent Trial of the Chicago 7, but without any of the self-satisfied snark of Aaron Sorkin's writing, and with 10x more sincerity and heart. He's also so clear-eyed about the world he envisions, and what we all owe to each other as people living together: “I'm nothing without you and you're nothing without me.” It plays so much better if you aren't aware of the true-life story, so if that's one of you, just go in blind and expect to be surprised, shocked – and deeply satisfied.
It runs at a cool 96 minutes, but with some fat it probably could have cut out. Anna Maxwell-Martin plays Dorothy's wealthy-but-nice employer – a character clearly put in as a “not all toffs” concession and given a completely unearned hero moment at the end that really should have gone to someone who isn't rich, so it would mean more emotionally. And there's one or two sublots that don't really go anywhere except to give the story a spike of dramatic energy that it should have been confident enough to discard. But as Bunton states so movingly during his trial, his faith “isn't in God, but people.” And the people who made this film are clearly very special, from the dapper script by Richard Bean and Clive Colman to the playful, charming score by George Fenton, to the across-the-board brilliant performances.
But I can't help but mention – to finish – that as a film about dealing with the care of the elderly, the UK just suffered through a pandemic that led to the deaths of 80,000 people over the age of 65, with an arguably complacent government utterly indifferent to their needs. Of course, The Duke wasn't made with this in mind, but I find it impossible to separate it from the context of what we've all been through, in that something partly about government indifference and elderly disenfranchisement is so painfully relevant, so many years after when it was set. It articulates problems we emphatically have not fixed yet. I hope that people mainly just enjoy themselves with this wonderful little film, and that it makes them feel good, and hopeful – but not lose themselves completely in it. It needs to focus minds a little.
The Duke will be released nationwide in UK cinemas on 3rd September 2021