The Duke (2020)

The Windsor Cinema, Dalkeith has a wonderfully redeeming feature totally removed from its architecture – itself a thorny point between the owner who insists it is not a heritage building and some meddling non-owners who insist it is.

The thing I love about the Windsor is that a 67-year-old man can walk into its theatres and know he has immediately lowered the age demographic.


This is due in part to films which feature there, like The Duke (2020), a charming British comedy starring the prolific Jim Broadbent and the always-superb Helen Mirren. 

Broadbent matches the age demographic of my fellow attendees (he’s 72). A peerless character actor, he found fame 20 years after his screen debut: uncredited as a spectator at a cricket match in The Go-Between (1971), a countryside-forbidden love vehicle for Julie Christie and Alan Bates.

Better roles came with Life Is Sweet (1990), playing Andy, the chef-husband of Alison Steadman in the Mike Leigh film which was warmly awarded after its release.


Strangely, I have often confused Broadbent with another ‘overnight success’, Tom Wilkinson. Both are British actors in their 70s and Wilkinson first appeared in 1976 before – again nearly two decades on – finding more recognised roles after Martin Chuzzlewit (1995). He gained even-more wide acceptance from The Full Monty (1997).

There is no confusion for me when it comes to Mirren. 

Hers was the first naked female body I had ever seen when she appeared in The Age of Consent (1969), opposite James Mason. It told of an ageing artist who moves to a remote beach location in Queensland and meets a teenage, muse-subject who reignites his work.

The credits included: “Miss Mirren is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (R.S.C.)“. 

This shocked. I was so green I thought any woman exposing her body so fully on screen must be from much humbler circumstances. 

Time marches on. In The Duke, Mirren’s wardrobe has been designed with the Moonee Ponds housewife Edna Everage as its seeming influence. Rarely if ever has she looked less glamorous. Her performance loses nothing from it, one of her best in a glittering career.

The Duke tells of Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) a man who went to trial in the early 1960s for stealing a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Goya from the National Gallery. 

Bunton is in his 60s and lives in Newcastle with wife Dorothy (Mirren) and son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). There is an older son, Kenny (Jack Bandeira) and a daughter who died while riding a bicycle.

This death plays a major part in the married relationship between two people who obviously love each other dearly. Kempton blames himself for the death (he bought the bicycle), Dorothy doesn’t want the others to grieve and refuses to visit the grave. It contributes to their somewhat strained relationship, not helped by Kempton’s inability to keep a job and her tireless work as a cleaner.

To make matters worse, Kempton is a would-be playwright and one-man social activist whose latest protest is at the need for older people to have to pay a licence fee to watch the BBC. 

Brought to a head by Dorothy’s embarrassment, she exacts his promise that if he goes to London for two final days to take up his protest at parliament, it will be the end of his activism. 

During these two days, the portrait – a major bugbear for Kempton because its purchase by the government for 140,000 pounds he considers a waste of public money – is stolen from the gallery. It ends up in Kempton’s study. 

From here, Kempton, with Jackie providing support, attempts to help the ageing public by getting the government to spend 140,000 pounds to provide free TV licences for safe return of the painting.

When this fails, he returns the painting, owns up and naturally lands in court where the film’s funniest dialogue ensues.

This farce is well written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, whose previous collaborations include the play, Young Marx (2017), a comedy combining the young Karl with a Groucho-like wit in 1850s London. It was the first play performed at The Bridge, London, the first theatre built in the city for 80 years.

Their screenplay of The Duke is a comedy but there are many moving allusions to the early 1960s. 

Racism, sexism, cigarette smoking, suppressed grief, small time larceny, bullying, class consciousness all get a well-earned guernsey, just in case the viewer gets too comfortable thinking of the good old days. Even in grimy Newcastle. 

Broadbent is superbly cast – or is he just a fabulous actor who embraces every role? He is damaged yet getting through life with a fearless attitude that every person matters. 

Mirren’s Dorothy is also a hurt figure, perfectly expressing the times when no amount of a family’s business should be seen by the neighbours. 

When she reluctantly reads one of Kempton’s scripts entitled The Girl on the Bicycle, she begins to come around, aided by the devoted Jackie, who loves his father dearly.

The Duke was one of the final directorial gigs for Roger Michell, who died last year. The film was widely released in March but had been screened at film festivals in Venice (2020) and Telluride (2021). The man who guided Notting Hill (1999) would have been aware of what another good film he had made.



*Heard on the radio news the night this film was viewed (5 April 2022):

Two handwritten notebooks by Charles Darwin have been returned undamaged to the public library in Cambridge (UK), 22 years after they went missing.  A package was left anonymously in a pink cloth bag in a corner of the library not covered by CCTV, together with a note saying “Dear Librarian, Happy Easter. XX”


*Showing Sean Connery doing a double take when he sees the Wellington portrait prominently displayed in the villain’s den in the 1962 James Bond Dr No was a lovely touch. In both movies.


*According to the credits it took nearly 40 years for TV licences to become free for older people in the United Kingdom. A lovely reminder as we head to a federal election about the complete lack of empathy of most governments.



*The handsome QC Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode) was mentioned as Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s husband. At the time she would have been 54 and was indeed appearing in The Cherry Orchard. For those of us who best remember her for her Oscar-winning role as Mrs Moore in A Passage to India (1984), here is another view:

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