Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are “pure bliss”
You won’t come across anyone accusing Roger Michell of being edgy or innovative. But the late director of Julia Roberts’ romantic comedy “Notting Hill” and actor Ben Affleck’s “Changing Lanes” could push an audience’s buttons with crowd-pleasing precision. It is his legacy. And it’s in that spirit that we welcome his farewell feature, the charming heist comedy “The Duke.”
Typical of his work, it is unadorned, direct and devoid of depth. But as always, his saving grace is his knack for casting actors into roles that fit them like a glove. In this case, it would be Oscar winners Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren as the economically disadvantaged Newcastle bride and groom who weave through the twilight of their grieving lives.
With minimal effort, Michell quickly establishes the precarious state of a union as destitute as their joint bank account. He does a quick job of communicating that Broadbent’s 60-year-old Kempton Bunton is plagued by a shameless idealism that keeps his ever-pragmatic and unapologetically pragmatic wife, Lilya, forever on the verge of exploding into a cyclone of fury. If he were as conscientious about his dodgy employment record as he was about his fight to end television license taxes for retirees, Lilya might not need to spend his golden years cleaning up the mansions of wealthy women like Mrs. Gowling (Michell’s ex-wife, Anna Maxwell Martin). Or so she thinks.
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It’s pure joy to watch Mirren tap into Lilya’s growing frustration and disappointment with how her two adult sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira), are following in their father’s footsteps. Lilya doesn’t say much, but Mirren leaves no doubt of her character’s internalized bitterness and anger. It’s so intense that you willingly share his anxiety. Yet she leaves just enough slack to imply that she unwittingly admires her husband’s misguided fight and his refusal to give up his dream of being a playwright worthy of his hero, Chekhov.
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What happens next threatens to erase even that iota of respect. Tired of all the unwanted attention her husband’s political advocacy brings to her family, she is ready to drop the hammer when Kempton announces his intention to travel to London to make his best and final appeal to Parliament. After that, he promises, he will walk the right path, never talking politics again.
Beyond that I won’t say more except that the screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is based on a true story involving the theft of an infamous Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington in England, a painting which the government had just paid £140,000 to buy in 1961. Just who hacked it, and how, is part of the mystery. But the crime isn’t as appealing as the often hilarious dysfunction of the Bunton clan, none of whom seem to know how to do anything right. Ah, but don’t you dare underestimate how much charm, like the one Kempton possesses, can wear on a guy when he’s breaking the law.
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Michell handles the ensuing antics with professional aplomb, hitting just the right tone with her film’s delicate blend of humor, drama and pathos. You endure shameless manipulation and willingly skim over obvious emotional cues just to bask in Mirren’s presence. But it is Broadbent that penetrates your heart, arousing affection at the highest level. His Kempton is a hopeless narcissistic mess, but in Broadbent’s able hands he’s as lovable as a clumsy Old English Sheepdog.
Give Michell credit for shaping the performance. But even he knows his movie lives or dies on Broadbent’s ability to deliver Kempton as an irresistible guy whose undying belief in humanity — and the essentiality of every citizen, regardless of race or economic status — is a constant and irresistible source of inspiration. It climaxes in a courtroom scene under the interrogation of her haughty lawyer, Jeremy Hutchinson, the husband of Dame Peggy Ashcroft and has just successfully defended the publisher of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.
In another casting stunt from Michell, he played off the suave, icy charisma of Matthew Goode in a performance that rivals Broadbent’s in terms of afterlife. Their volley of questions and answers in front of a noisy gallery is a healthy dose of cinematic magic. The display is as fun as it is attractive. And that means something that the chemistry between client and advisor rivals that of Broadbent and Mirren. That last couple is the cornerstone of the movie and what keeps it relevant amid all the corn you’d expect from a movie about a populist bringing the halls of government to their knees.
As it is, it’s a delight. But there is nagging speculation that he could have been richer and more relevant in his spin on the pauper and the prince. Or, in this case, “The Duke”. Kempton, a Shakespeare detractor, would surely hate my use of The Bard’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.” But in this case, there’s no better summary of a peon taking a hit on an enemy as formidable as Mother England and landing a punch that knocked the crown on his ass. Even a secret agent named Bond took notice, giving a nod to the Bunton case in one of his early films. From one person to “Dr. No.” It’s quite a transition. And one that gives Michell a most memorable farewell.
Note : R for language and brief sexuality
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Matthew Goode and Fionn Whitehead
Director: Roger Michel
Writers: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman
Duration: 96 minutes
Theatres: Showing in the coming weeks at Plimoth Cinema and May 6 at Patriot Cinemas Loring Hall
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