Tuesday, May 24, 2022

A Portrait of “The Duke” (No, NOT John Wayne)

That’s the great thing about British actors: you can always count on them to put on a jolly good show, especially when they’re portraying common folk from the provinces. The unfortunate thing is that you can’t always understand what they’re saying. Those working-class North of England accents are just too thick to allow an American to catch every delightful word.

 It’s worth it, though, to see Jim Broadbent portray a cranky taxi driver from Newcastle upon Tyne, with Dame Helen Mirren shedding her usual glamour to play his exasperated wife. Broadbent’s Kempton Bunton is a World War II vet, circa 1961. Neglecting his job, he’s now spending most of his energy on a quixotic campaign to end government laws that require citizens to purchase a license in order to watch the telly. While his wife Dorothy scrimps and scrubs as a housekeeper for a more upper-crust family, he continues his fiery one-man crusade, eventually getting thrown in the clink. It’s not that he can’t personally afford a license, he insists. He’s campaigning on behalf of the common folk, especially the elderly and military veterans, who haven’t the wherewithal to tune into the BBC.

 Behind his shenanigans (he’s also taken up playwriting) is a sad family story: a teenage daughter has died in a bicycle accident, and he blames himself for gifting her the bike. So what may seem like a quirky comedy is in many ways a film about grief and the different ways it affects those who’ve suffered terrible losses. That’s part of what’s pulling husband and wife apart, making her angrily stoic and him expansively emotional.

 The story as we see it on-screen hinges on a late Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington, on temporary exhibit at London’s National Gallery. When this art treasure ends up in Bunton’s hands, he hides it in the back bedroom of his row house, planning to use the reward money to carry on his activism. Instead he’s hauled into court, charged with grand theft and a host of other major crimes, and faces a serious prison sentence.

 What’s fascinating is that the story of Kempton Bunton and the Duke (the one a commonplace man, the other a powerful aristocrat) is entirely true. It was brought to the producers’ attention by Bunton’s grandson: he never knew his grand-dad, but was in possession of family artifacts as well as family secrets, and insisted that the script of The Duke stay true to what actually happened. According to an instructive article in the Los Angeles Times, every scene and every character detail of the subsequent film accurately reflect the Buntons’ own actual behavior. Family possessions, like a photo of the deceased daughter, were used as key pieces of set dressing. So I can assume that the sweet moment when husband and wife put aside their grievances and spontaneously begin to dance together in their modest kitchen did not come out of a screenwriter’s fertile imagination, but rather indicates something about the private lives of this usually warring pair.

 Why is a small film like this one worth making—and worth seeing?  We all love grand movies that unleash the power of spectacle. The big screen is possibly at its best in giving us big vistas and big emotions. But the joys and sorrows of everyday people can be equally worthy subjects. As my favorite multiplex disappears (yes, another victim of COVID), I’ll remember watching The Duke in a real movie theatre. It’s not an experience I hope to replicate anytime soon.



  1. Hi “Invisible,” this is anonymous, man am I glad to have you back, I was really scared something had happened to you. Whew. I love small movies about small, human traits, hope to see it.

  2. Hi Anonymous -- so flattered that you missed me! But I'm sorry you were worried. The truth is -- for perhaps the second time in eleven years -- I slipped up. The post was all written and ready to go, but last Friday was a VERY busy day, and I didn't realize until too late that I had neglected to put it up on my site. Shame on me, but the fact that you were wondering where I was somehow makes it all seem worthwhile!