THE Duke might be seen as a small film; small cast, made-for-tv feeling.
But what a cast. Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent glow in a quietly low key piece about the theft of a Goya painting from the National Portrait Gallery in 1961 by one Kempton Bunton, a working class bloke up in Newcastle on Tyne with strong views on social justice. And things like compulsory TV licences for OAPs.
That painting, the portrait of The Duke of Wellington, drips with power and privilege. It is stolen to make a point.
Directed by the late Roger Michell (Notting Hill) this film has all the quirkiness of post war British comedy. If it weren’t in colour one would expect Stanley Holloway or Kathleen Harrison or Alec Guiness to turn up any minute.
Broadbent’s Kempton struggles to stay in work, whether driving taxis or working at a bakery, because he has a tendency to speak up about injustice. He writes scripts which the BBC constantly reject.
His wife, Dorothy (Mirren) cleans house for the upmarket Mrs Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin) and wishes he would be more of a conformist and less of a worry. Older son ( Jack Bandeira), out of tune with his dad, into petty crime and a tenuous relationship with the raucously judgemental Pammy (Charlotte Spencer) is living up in Leeds. Younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) is more on his father’s side. The Bunton’s marriage is haunted by the circumstances of the death of their daughter.
The theft eventually lands Bunton in court where the camera slowly reveals how much the human beings there might agree with his stand, despite what the law might say. A twitch of amusement here, a removal of glasses there, often no words, just the ageing human faces of the court officials.
There’s the odd loose end in the plot and a twist to the story which is a little anticlimactic (although true to what apparently actually happened) but the feeling of the piece is genuinely warm. It is anchored by Mirren and Broadbent in closely observed performances as the central couple.
It’s a story about people and principles and the need for social justice. Well worth a visit when it comes through Canberra later in March.