I often admire those who dig out the implausible stories from the recent past – recent being a relative concept and in my head refers to the period when I was alive – and then create a film from them that beats with a heart of gold. There must be many who have some memory of this tale, the headlines it made at the time etc, but they haven’t carried it into the national folklore by constant retelling. It’s a bit of a shame.
Time and distance can also lend both a perspective to the events, add a modern sensibility to the way we judge the sanctimonious and sententious society we lived in the the early 1960s before the permission to be permissive was given and the teenager was unveiled as a construct in all its spotty potent glory.
The Duke is one of those classy British comedy film dramas where some of the talented pool of British actors are wheeled out to remind we viewers we are lucky to have such enduring talent that makes the most of a charming if somewhat implausible script. Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren take the plaudits but the whole piece is marbled with quality.
The story – based on facts – concerns a Geordie chap, Broadbent whose current beef – we understand he has had many – is the isolation of the elderly and how their lot could be improved if they had free access to a TV, rather than having to stump up for an exorbitant licence. His zealotry is at odds with his wife (Mirren) who’d rather not bring any attention and thus the potential for embarrassment to the household.
He campaigns vigorously but without success. We find he is particularly galled by the government stumping up some £140, 000 to keep a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from being sold abroad.
So our hero steals it. This is the definitely true bit. Well, maybe… What happens next – how he decides to use it, why he ends up being tried for its theft, the impact on his family and the eventual heart warming ending are for you to find out by seeing it. Its Robin Hood in a shabby mac and trilby.
It has its limitations. In an hour and whatever it is necessarily lacking nuance: the Establishment – especially the Courts but also the Government, the Police, the National Gallery and any management classes in places of employment – are all portrayed as utterly incompetent and out of touch or basically bigoted and sneery. The working classes are worthy, wronged at every turn and underestimated. The only characters who inhabit the elevated world of toffdom and who comes out with credit are the local lady for whom Mirren cleans and who supports Broadbent in court and Broadbent’s defending barrister: we know he’s a good guy because (a) he doesn’t condescend when discussing Chekov with our hero (b) he’s married to an actress, thus confirming his radical propensities and (c) he eats a cheese sandwich with Broadbent in his cell while awaiting the jury’s verdict. Otherwise, only are the main characters allowed to have shades of grey.
That all said, it’s worth a trip…