If the Notting Hill director Roger Michell had a pet subject, it was the vitality of the middle-aged and elderly. In three films written by Hanif Kureishi (The Mother, Venus, Le Week-End) – as well as in Nothing Like a Dame, his documentary chinwag with Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith – Michell showed that age shall not wither us nor custom stale our infinite variety, not even once we qualify for a free bus pass.
The director died suddenly five months ago at 65 but the theme continues in his last fiction film (his documentary Elizabeth is due out later this year). Make that fictionalised: The Duke tells the tale of the real-life theft in 1961 of Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, snatched from the National Gallery shortly after £140,000 – £40,000 of which was public money – was paid to keep it in the UK. George Fenton’s snazzy score, its hi-hat hissing over on-screen graphics that evoke late-1950s jazz albums, suggests that a hip art-world caper is in the offing, but The Thomas Crown Affair this is not.
You would be squinting long and hard before you mistook Jim Broadbent for Steve McQueen. With his apologetic lankiness and his look of befuddled alarm, Broadbent is a joy as the idealistic amateur playwright Kempton Bunton, who stages street-corner protests in his Newcastle neighbourhood. Explaining his faith in small-scale activism, he asks: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” His doleful wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), is unconvinced. “Who eats elephants?” she snaps.
To his adult sons, Kempton is an anti-authoritarian hero. Tampering with the family television so that it can’t receive a BBC signal fails to win over the men in the detector van, however, so Kempton launches a campaign. “Free TV for OAPs” is the slogan on the banner he unfurls in the Houses of Parliament before being hustled out by security. Which is where Goya comes in.
Kempton holds the portrait hostage in exchange for a ransom large enough to cover the licence fees of the elderly. To the police, the theft exhibits all the hallmarks of an international crime syndicate. Little do they know the Duke is stashed in a back-bedroom in the north-east, his fixed unblinking eye peeping through a hole in the wardrobe.
When the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020, the licence fee was not quite the political hot potato it has become in recent months. Look beyond this and the script’s mistrust of expertise, especially when exhibited by women (including the criminologist who discerns in the ransom note signs of a poor education), and there is a charming Ealing-style sensibility that dispels any Little Englander connotations. It doesn’t hurt that Kempton at one point takes up the cudgels on behalf of an Asian factory worker against a racist boss.
Broadbent is a snug fit for the part, perhaps because Kempton, who responds with a feeble “I can explain” when Dorothy catches him Duke-handed, recalls the sort of bumbling figure he played for Victoria Wood in the 1980s. Helen Mirren spends most of her time trying not to be Helen Mirren. Slightly stooped, or sporting a hairnet, she wrings the back of a chair with fretful hands; it’s less a performance than an attempted vanishing act. Fionn Whitehead, smouldering in his donkey jacket like a young Terence Stamp, is decent enough as one of Kempton’s sons to make you wish he had more to do.
The film establishes early on that the portrait that must be restored to its rightful place is not the Goya at all, but a photo of the Buntons’ late daughter. Kempton, who keeps her picture in his drawer, would dearly love to discuss her. Dorothy forbids any such outpouring (“It’s done, isn’t it?”) and is aghast to find he has been writing about their loss. Michell keeps the film light and funny even as his compositions show how the family’s life is fragmented by grief. He shoots the actors through doorways within doorways, and fractures the image with optical effects or panels that glide across the screen like paintings liberated from their frames.
It was in theatre that Michell did his most urgent work: Nina Raine’s Consent, Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. But in parts of The Duke, as well as throughout The Mother and his gutsy 1995 version of Persuasion, he proved himself a dab hand at the modest brushstrokes that reveal a bigger and knottier picture.
[See also: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II lacks the toxic glamour of the original]
“The Duke” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls