The penultimate film from the late British director Roger Michell, The Duke is based on the true story of Kempton Bunton (played here by Jim Broadbent), a pensioner from Benwell in Newcastle upon Tyne who, in 1961, stole Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery.
The theft was one of the most notorious in history, making its way into pop culture imagination (even so far as to be mentioned in Bond outing Dr. No, cheerfully referenced towards this film’s close). Bunton planned to use the reward money to fund thousands of licences for pensioners. It’s an extraordinary story, at once a brilliant heist and a fable about one individual standing up against the full power of the state. It’s also a tale about the the country’s north-south divide: of a forgotten underclass getting one over on the powers that be.
So it’s with no pleasure to report that while perfectly entertaining, largely inoffensive and very occasionally rousing, The Duke consistently lacks the bite needed to offset its sense of sleepy comfort. Broadly, there’s little to actively complain about – the cast are game (especially Helen Mirren as Bunton’s long-suffering wife, Dorothy), the film looks handsome enough and there are some fun 1960s-esque stylistic flourishes – but the whole thing comes off as middle of the road and, in its final sequence, more than a little sentimental.
These things are invariably a matter of taste, and judging by the very positive reception to the film so far, this reviewer’s misgivings are very much in the minority. Harder to forgive, however, is that in this tale of a forgotten North struggling against the blithe self-regard of a London establishment, there is not a single actor from the North-East in a lead role. Those of us who may have been looking forward to seeing a few drops from the region’s considerable pool of talent will have to make do with ‘Post Office Clerk’ (Sarah Annett) or ‘PO Official 1’ (Charlie Richmond).
Perhaps it’s unfair to single out The Duke for its casting: after all, without big names like Broadbent or Mirren, it’s unlikely that the film would have been made at all. That’s part of the problem, though, isn’t it? ‘Regional’ stories, whether they are in Newcastle, Wales or Cornwall are emotionally uplifting for an establishment keen to remind itself of its own benediction, but when there’s a real opportunity to do some uplifting of opportunity, it’s crumbs from the table.
More positively, The Duke is well paced and the third act brings with it a twist that for the those unfamiliar with the tale brings a really fun play on its gestures towards heist films. And, while his accent is among the dodgiest this side of Castle, Broadbent really imbues his Bunton with an irresistible, irreverent decency. Though the grins, laughter and cheering of the film’s climax is a little too heavy on the sweetness, it’s a harder heart than mine that would fail to be just a little moved by Bunton’s speech about our dependence on one another.