The Duke review – Jim Broadbent steals show in warm-hearted 60s-set crime caper

For what has become his final feature film, director Roger Michell made this sweet-natured and genial comedy in the spirit of Ealing, which bobs up like a ping pong ball on a water-fountain. It is based on the true story of Kempton Bunton, the Newcastle bus driver who in 1965 was had up at the Old Bailey for stealing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery. The mystery of its disappearance had so electrified the media that there was even a gag about it in the James Bond film Dr No, using a copy personally painted by the legendary production designer Ken Adam, which was itself stolen. Maybe there should be a film about that as well.

The court heard this was Bunton’s protest at government misuse of taxpayers’ money (the painting had been saved for the nation at some cost) and to publicise his demand for pensioners to be given free TV licences. (This film features the usual “historical coda” sentences over the closing credits, and one sentimentally records that free TV licences for the over-75s were finally introduced in 2000. But no mention of these being taken away again in 2020.)

If this was actually an Ealing picture, Stanley Holloway might have taken the lead role; as it is, Jim Broadbent plays the cussed and bloody-minded Bunton, a pipe-smoking individualist, autodidact and working man: JB Priestley without the establishment cachet or the university degree. He writes dozens of unpublished novels and unproduced plays, emotionally driven by the tragic death of his daughter, and is briefly imprisoned for refusing to pay his licence on the grounds that he has removed the cathode that allows his set to receive the BBC. (It should be said that there is something a little bit Brexity about him.) His exasperated but loving wife Dorothy is played by Helen Mirren, who gives her all to this slightly underwritten role – at one stage knitting so fiercely that the needles clash like duellists’ sabres. His loyal, decent son…

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