The latest entry in the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ genre is The Duke – the final feature from versatile director, the late Roger Michell. This is the story of the improbably named Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), an irascible campaigner for pensioners’ rights, women’s suffrage and, in his spare time, a would-be playwright. Quite why his script The Adventures of Susan Christ never found an audience is anybody’s guess.
It’s the early 1960s and ,while England’s capital is celebrating a new-found sense of freedom, life on the gloomy streets of Newcastle is a somewhat bleaker prospect, as Bunton stumbles from job-to-job, constantly losing them because of his propensity to stand up against any signs of injustice he encounters. His long-suffering wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), slogs her guts out as a home help to her more affluent neighbour, Mrs Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), in order to make ends meet. She is mortified when her husband is obliged to spend a short spell in prison for non-payment of his TV licence (free TV for OAPs being his current pet project).
Meanwhile the couple’s younger son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), dreams of building and selling luxury boats, while his brother, Kenny (Jack Bundeira), has his own run-ins with the police to contend with.
And then a valuable painting of The Duke of Wellington by Goya is ‘borrowed’ from the National Gallery – and when it winds up hidden in the back of the Bunton’s wardrobe, it’s only a matter of time before the merde hits the fan.
The Duke is an irresistibly enjoyable piece that manages to evade the cosy complacency of so many films aimed at more mature audiences. Michell’s direction cleverly juxtaposes glossy widescreen shots of London with the grubby, timeworn realities of 60s Newcastle and the humdrum rigours of everyday working-class life are convincingly captured. The Buntons feel like real characters rather than archetypes. A past sadness that Kempton and Dorothy share is skilfully revealed in Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s canny script – and there’s also a twist to the tale that genuinely takes me by surprise.
But this is surely Broadbent’s film. He’s terrific in the central role, making us genuinely care about a character who was, by all accounts, a bit of a wastrel. The penultimate scene where Bunton stands up in court to discuss the art theft with his barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode), had me laughing out loud and is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. Meanwhile, Mirren handles her role as the family matriarch with her usual aplomb and even manages to knit aggressively.
I’m hoping that some enterprising theatre will finally decide to stage one of Bunton’s lost plays – I’d love to see whether Susan Christ achieves her ambitions – but until that happens, The Duke is sure to send you on your way with a smile on your face.