Matthew Goode

The Duke

09/03/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

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.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The House

06/02/22

Netflix

It’s a cold Sunday afternoon, with the threat of snow hanging over it. We’ve nothing pressing to do, and we’ve already braved the elements for a bracing walk. We don’t want to go out again. It’s warm in our lounge, and there must be something worth watching that we haven’t already seen… But what?

The House pops up as a suggestion, and we’re intrigued.

Originally billed as a miniseries, The House appears on Netflix as a portmanteau, and is – I think – all the better for it. Viewed as one, the themes coalesce, and the strange beauty of this piece is given time to develop.

The house in question is a rather lovely one: three storeys of opulence and grandeur. Enda Walsh’s script shows it to us in three different times: the past, the present and the future.

Chapter One, And Heard Within, a Lie is Spun, is an eerie origins tale, directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, and brought to life via some very spooky felt dolls. Mabel (voiced by Mia Goth) is a little girl. It’s some time in the 1800s, and her father’s fecklessness means her family is impoverished. Raymond (Matthew Goode) is a decent man; it’s just that he’s not very good at making money or managing his alcohol intake. One night, he wanders drunkenly into the forest, and meets a mysterious being, who offers him a way out. The enigmatic architect, Mr Van Schoonbeek, will build him a house. It is a gift. The only catch is that they have to live there – and that doesn’t seem like a catch at all. What could go wrong?

A lot, as it happens. Mabel is disconcerted to discover that Mr Van Schoonbeek keeps making changes. Big changes. Such as removing the staircases, so that she and her baby sister, Isobel, are trapped on the upper floor. Her parents seem caught up in the house’s spell, lured by its riches, and all too soon are literally defined by what they own…

Chapter Two, Then Lost is Truth That Can’t Be Won, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, takes us to the present day. The house is now part of a suburban row, and is in the process of being renovated.

By a rat.

Said rat, known only as The Developer and voiced by Jarvis Cocker, is a hard-working soul. He has everything riding on the success of what seems to be a solo project, and – as his constant calls to the bank confirm – is relying on a quick sale. At first, he’s confident. His plans are meticulous. He has dedicated his life to this money-making scheme, sleeping in the basement for months, doing the place up room by room. It’s a wonder of high-spec luxury. But when he spies a fur beetle scurrying along the kitchen floor, he realises he has a problem. He fills in gaps in the skirting boards and throws around a liberal amount of beetle-poison, but all to no avail. He has an open viewing scheduled. What is he to do?

In Chapter Three, Listen Again and Seek the Sun, director Paloma Baeza offers us a washed out dystopia, set in the near future. Floods have risen, and the house looms precariously out of the water, an island in a never-ending sea. It’s all studio apartments now, owned by a cat called Rosa (Susan Wokoma), who dreams of restoring the dilapidated building to its former glory. The Pinterest-style boards attached to her wall show an ambitious vision, but she’s fighting a losing battle. All but two of her tenants have left, and those who remain, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), pay their rent, respectively, in crystals and fish. Which is all very well, Rosa tells them crossly, but no plumber will accept them as currency so no, sorry, she can’t do anything about the horrible brown water that’s coming out of the taps.

When Cosmos (Paul Kaye) arrives, the truth becomes clear: Rosa needs to let go of her attachment to the house if she wants to survive.

Taken as a whole, these three stories amount to a gentle polemic, an admonishment to us all to realise what really matters before it’s too late to save the world. It’s beautifully done. The tales are fresh, engaging, and quirkily animated – a lovely way to while away an hour and a half.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

23/04/18

Based on a bestselling novel and handsomely filmed on location by veteran director, Mike Newell, it’s hard to dislike this clunkily-titled romance. It’s handsomely produced and nicely acted by an ensemble cast and, if occasionally it wanders a little into the land of the twee, well, that’s no great hardship, because the story is interesting enough to keep us engaged to the end.

It’s 1946 and the world is recovering from the devastating effects of the second World War. Unfeasibly successful young author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), already has a best-selling book under her belt, and is being vigorously courted by rich and handsome American, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). But then a letter arrives from somebody she has never met. Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) has chanced upon her name and address in a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and mentions that he is a member of the titular society, hastily formed and named back in 1941, when Guernsey was under Nazi occupation.

After exchanging several letters with Dawsey, Juliet decides to head over to the island to attend the society’s next meeting, much to the consternation of her publisher – and best mate – Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode), who needs her on the mainland to do an extensive book tour. Once on Guernsey, Juliet quickly discovers that the events of the war have left many wounds that have yet to heal and a bit of a mystery that’s desperately in need of a solution. Moreover, when she meets Dawsey in the flesh, she finds herself becoming more and more interested in him…

Okay, so there are no great surprises in the story, but when you have actors of the calibre of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton in supporting roles, you aren’t going to be disappointed with their efforts – and Katherine Parkinson is a particular delight as the oddly named Isola Pribby, a member of the society who is constantly tipsy on the homemade gin she distils and sells. The parts of the story that deal with the Nazi occupation could doubtless have been handled with a little more abrasiveness but, more than anything else, this feels like a lushly filmed advertisement for the joys of Guernsey itself, with a host of gorgeous locations that are sure to encourage plenty of tourists to pay the place a visit this summer – which is rather ironic when you consider that all the filming was actually done in Devon!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is unlikely to thrill you, but – if you’re a romantic soul who fancies a nice warm hug of a film – I’m sure this is just the ticket.

4 stars

Philip Caveney