The story of an ex-bus driver and cabbie from Newcastle upon Tyne who was accused of executing one of the most infamous heists in British history has been given a starring role at this year’s Venice film festival. “The Duke”, which stars Jim Broadbent as the unlikely art “thief” Kempton Bunton and Helen Mirren as his wife, premiered on the Lido on Friday (Helen did not attend the festival) and has received some wonderful positive reviews from the world press. Here’s a selection:
The Telegraph, Robbie Collin (September 04, 20209)
The Duke is that rarest of things: a comedy that knows a twinkle in the eye and a fire in the belly needn’t be mutually exclusive. Although the England it depicts disappeared half a century ago, it speaks mindfully and movingly to our own divided times – asking how institutions should best serve the public that funds them, and speaking up for those who find themselves excluded by class, geography or birth. However long the 2021 Baftas and Oscars end up being postponed – the current plan is April – this wise and wry film should be a non-negotiable presence at both. So too, in person, should be Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, who give two of the finest performances of their careers here as Kempton and Dorothy, his wife. The pair are soulmates in many ways and opposites in others, but both clearly learned long ago how to rub along together in curmudgeonly accord. (You can see every year of their marriage in Broadbent and Mirren’s interplay on screen.)
The Guardian, Xan Brooks (September 04, 20209)
All rise for The Duke, a scrappy underdog yarn that makes a powerful case for the rackety English amateur, the common man who survives by his wits with the odds stacked against him. Kempton Bunton of Byker, for instance, is about as far removed from the Duke of Wellington as a frog is from a prince. What a lovely, rousing, finally moving film this is. The Duke is unashamedly sentimental and resolutely old-fashioned in the best sense of the term: a design classic built along the same lines as That Sinking Feeling, A Private Function or 50s Ealing comedies.
Screen Interantional, Fionnuala Halligan (September 05, 20209)
As a film, The Duke sits manifestly in its own genre as well; there’s no doffing the cap to any newfangled modernity here. Michell’s film is as defiantly traditional as the ghastly wallpaper which decorates the Bunton’s house. There’s a suspicion, as Kenton speechifies in the dock about how we all need to help each other in order to get out of the situation we’re stuck in, that this is some sort of Brexit rallying cry, Spirit of the Blitz etc. But perhaps that’s just the sort of remoaner nonsense that can be fixed by a fish and chip supper and a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. Broadbent’s considerable charisma as a prototype social justice warrior is just about enough to pull the rag-and-bone cart home on a film which becomes more defiantly contrived as it goes on. This type of silver-pound caper plays consistently well in the UK, though, and The Duke should follow suit (if, perhaps, a little more hastily onto the small screen, given the times and the target demographic).
The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young (September 04, 20209)
A funny-moving story enjoyably retold with classic British understatement and just the right twist at the end, The Duke is the account of an incredible true event from 1961, when a man from the working-class north of England climbed through a bathroom window into London’s National Gallery one night and stole a valuable painting of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Mirren gives the sharp-tongued, resentful Dorothy interest and depth, but she’s not the focus of the story. Understatement and off-handedness remain the key to the film and even if the trial leaves one a little choked up and teary, there is still a great gag to come: the scene from Dr. No in which James Bond is startled to see a certain painting in the antagonist’s living room. Now we know why he looks so surprised.
Variety, Guy Lodge (September 04, 20209)
If the filmmaking is occasionally a tad too cute, Broadbent and Mirren – two fine actors who can, under the wrong direction, lean into fussiness — do well to keep things restrained. Together, they convincingly play an unspoken, stiff-upper-lipped distance in their characters’ marriage that fills in some of the script’s gaps. Broadbent gives Bunton’s scrappy, upbeat spirit the right undertow of sorrow and been-to-the-brink desperation, and if a few too many of Mirren’s scenes simply require her to find fresh ways of tut-tutting, her gradual thaw to her husband’s cause is finely delineated and moving. “The Duke” is a romp first and foremost: Michell’s merry direction makes sure of that. But its stars put a small, dignified lump in its throat.