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Thread: THE DUKE (Roger Mitchell 2020)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE DUKE (Roger Mitchell 2020)




    True story of an amiable villain with Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirrin is Roger Mitchell's swan song

    The versatile Roger Mitchell having recently died, The Duke, whose release was delayed by the pandemic, has turned out to be his swan song. It's a low-keyed charmer, so British and so close to a classic Ealing comedy it feels as if it could have been made during the time it depicts - the early sixties. Not totally accurate (and not all the facts are known anyway), and very funny in places, especially the trial scenes, it depicts the "true" story of one Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a retired truck driver (the screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman makes him a cabbie), a crusader for the common man and small causes, mainly against having elderly poor folk charged by the state for TV licenses to watch the BBC. (We Americans just don't know how lucky we are.)

    This crusade apparently leads him to steal what had become the most famous painting in the country, because it had just been saved from a foreign buyer: Francisco Goya's portrait of Lord Wellington, bought for 140,000 - three and a half million of today's British pounds. He hides this from his disapproving wife Dorothy (Hellen Mirrin). We also must pay attention to son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead, a memorable anonymous soldier in Chris Nolan's Dunkirk), loyal to a fault to his dad, with a more complex role than at fist appears. There's also another, n'er-do-well, bro, Kenny (Jack Bandeira). Later there will be another charmer and one of England's acting elite by now, Matthew Goode, as Jeremy Hutchinson QC, the barrister who defends Bunton when, in due course (foreshadowed in the film's opening frames), he winds up very famous by now and on trial at the Old Bailey - his plan of ransoming the painting to pay off old people's TV license fees, or maybe contribute to other charitable causes, cut rudely short.

    Bunton is a complicated mess of a man, troubled by the death of a daughter some years ago at eighteen in a bike accident he thinks his fault because he gave her the bike. He writes endless unproduceable plays and is always getting himself fired from temporary jobs for defending the downtrodden or incompetence. I was impressed by the recreation of a period bread factory with its many racks of large white bread loafs. Bunton is no good with an assembly line. Dorothy thinks him an endless annoyance and troublemaker, but does not threaten to banish him till he gets into the really, really bad trouble this film is focused on.

    As a humble vintage north of England couple Broadbent and Mirrin are a triumph. The two of them are too good to miss. No other country can produce actors of such profoundly rich, modest craft. The viewer's delight are the trial scenes, as mentioned, when the compulsively voluble Bunton, questioned by anybody, produces strings of spontaneous one-liners. He's a kind of wise fool who also enunciates an irresistible humanistic philosophy of shared democratic responsibility, You-are-me, I-am-you kind of thing; and, by the way, though he thinks himself a writer, and knows his Chekhov, he's not very educated, and his English and spelling are imperfect, borderline dialectal. And that's all part of the charm, which you may forgive for being a bit saccharine.

    This is not a movie to be taken too seriously, but simply enjoyed. It is just too bad it couldn't have represented Bunton's political activism in a bit more detail. Movie end titles point out that the UK's government TV license flat fee was lifted for those over seventy-five in 2000, but fail to note that it was restored in 2020. Who actually stole the painting? That's a mystery the screenplay answers in its own way, but not the way of history. What's known or not (or was or was not then) you may read in a 2011 Guardian article by Sandy Nairne, till 2015 director of the National Portrait Gallery. It's a true fact that in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, the Goya Duke of Wellington portrait winds up in 007's hidden lair, an item woven into the film's final moments.

    The Duke, , 96 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 4, 2020, six other festival showings in 2020 and 2021. Theatrical opening in Los Angeles Dec. 2021, in the UK Feb. 25, 2022. Wider US release Mar. 25, 2022.. San Francisco Apr. 29, 2022, other California locations May 6, 2022. Metacritic rating 77%.

    Other Roger Mitchell films I've reviewed (a mixed bag; his collaborations with a Hanif Kuraishi may be his best work): Changing Lanes (2002), Venus (2006), Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), Le Week-End (2013), My Cousin Rachel (2017), Tea with the Dames 2018).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-28-2022 at 11:27 PM.


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