Review: ‘The Duke’ (2021), starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren

May 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent in “The Duke” (Photo courtesy of Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” (2021)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom cities of Newcastle and London, in 1961 and briefly in 1965, the comedy/drama film “The Duke” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one person of Pakistani heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An anti-establishment senior citizen, who is grieving over the years-ago death of his teenage daughter, pleads not guilty in his trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.

Culture Audience: “The Duke” will appeal primarily to people interested in old-fashioned but well-acted period dramas about feisty and opinionated British people that explore issues of rebelling against society and dealing with personal grief.

Fionn Whitehead and Jack Bandeira in “The Duke” (Photo by Nick Wall/Pathé UK/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Duke” is more than just a traditionally made movie about a man who goes on trial for stealing a valuable painting from London’s National Gallery. It’s also a witty and emotional drama about a family coping with grief. Based on a true story, “The Duke” is not as predictable as it might seem. The cast members greatly elevate the material, which might have become too lackluster or misguided with the wrong people cast in the roles.

Directed by Roger Michell (who passed away in 2021, at the age of 65), “The Duke” (which takes place in England, mostly in 1961) is really three stories in one, in telling what happened in the year of the life of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton (played Jim Broadbent) before, during and after he was put on trial for a famous art theft. The movie (written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) focuses mostly on the “before” part of the story, which is somewhat a detriment to the flow of the narrative, which needed to give more screen time to the trial.

Kempton, who lives in Newcastle, is a spunky nonconformist with a keen sense of questioning government authority and wanting to be a champion for underdogs and underprivileged people. He is a taxi driver by trade, but early on in the story, he gets fired from his taxi job. On the day that Kempton gets fired, his no-nonsense supervisor Freda (played by Val McLane, in a scene-stealing cameo) starts off by telling Kempton that she’s been getting customer complaints that he talks too much. More importantly to the boss, Kempton has also been falling short of handing over the company’s commission for his taxi cash earnings. He’s not exactly accused of stealing, but Kempton’s excuses aren’t good explanations for the missing commission money.

Kempton mumbles something about how he took pity on a cab rider who couldn’t afford to pay the fare. Freda tells Kempton, “I might have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I’ve got the testicles of Henry VIII … I am running a taxi firm, not a charity!” When Freda decides to fire Kempton without paying him the salary that he’s owed, he disagrees with her, and she barks at him: “Sue me then. But fuck off first!”

Kempton’s loyal but frustrated wife Dorothy Bunton (played by Helen Mirren) has gotten fed up with Kempton’s erratic employment. Dorothy is essentially the main breadwinner for the household. She works as a housekeeper for a wealthy middle-aged couple, whose husband is a prominent doctor in the area. Kempton and Dorothy have two sons, both in their 20s.

Younger son Jackie (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is kind and obedient, works as a boat repairer/builder at a shipyard, and he lives with Kempton and Dorothy. Jackie has a crush on a young woman who’s close to his age named Irene Boslover (played by Aimée Kelly), and they have a sweet romance that starts off a little hesitantly, because Jackie is shy when it comes to dating. Jackie greatly admires his eccentric father Kempton, but Dorothy worries that Jackie will be influenced too much by Kempton’s disruptor ways.

Older son Kenny (played by Jack Bandeira), who is rebellious and outspoken, no longer lives with his parents. Kenny is involved in shady and illegal activities that he won’t discuss with his family. And much to Dorothy’s disapproval, Kenny plans to start living with his lover Pamela (played by Charlotte Spencer), nicknamed Pammy, who is legally married but separated from her husband. When Kenny and Pamela visit his parents, it leads to arguments and hard feelings between Kenny and his mother Dorothy.

Kempton and Dorothy are parents to a third child—a daughter named Marian—who died in 1948, at the age 18. She was killed in a car accident while riding a bicycle that Kempton gave her as a gift. Kempton feels tremendous guilt over Marian’s death and visits her grave on a regular basis. Kempton also likes to talk about Marian and reminisce about happy memories that he has of her.

By contrast, Dorothy refuses to discuss Marian and her death. She treats Marian’s death as if it’s a closed door that she doesn’t ever want to open again. She won’t even visit Marian’s grave. Because Kempton and Dorothy have handled Marian’s death in extremely different ways, it’s caused a strain in their marriage.

Kempton has written a drama manuscript, inspired by Marian, called “The Girl on a Bicycle” that he hopes will be produced for television. Later in the movie, Dorothy is horrified when she finds out about this manuscript. “Grief is private!” Dorothy gruffly tells Kempton.

One day, Kempton watches the TV news and sees a report announcing that the National Gallery in London has purchased a Francisco Goya portrait painting of the Duke of Wellington, also known as former U.K. prime minister Arthur Wellesley. The painting is worth £140,000 in 1961 money. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about £267 million in early 2020s money. Kempton scoffs at the extravagant purchase, because he thinks the U.K. government could have put the money to better use.

Kempton is more than a little irritated about it. In a typical Kempton Bunton comment, he remarks to Dorothy about the National Gallery’s purchase of this painting: “You know what’s going on here. Toffs looking after their own. Spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked board rate, by some Spanish drunk, of a duke who was a bastard to his men and was against universal suffrage.” The irony of this comment is that Kempton has not paid his taxes in years.

Later, Kempton goes to London, in an attempt to get media and government attention for his quest to make TV in the United Kingdom free for old age pensioners (OAPs), who are usually on a fixed and limited income. While in London, he sees a newspaper article about the painting where the National Gallery has issued this invitation to visitors who want to see the Duke of Wellington painting: “Line up to meet the Duke!”

And not long after that, the painting is stolen and hidden in the Bunton household. It’s the first time that any art has been stolen from the National Gallery. (And to this day, it remains the only major theft that the National Gallery has experienced.) An anonymous ransom note written and mailed by Kempton announces that the painting is being held “hostage” until the U.K. government agrees to give £140,000 (the price paid for the painting) to worthy causes supporting the elderly and military veterans.

Police commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson (played by Charles Edwards) leads the investigation, but “The Duke” predictably has two bumbling police detectives—DI (Detective Inspector) Macpherson (played by Dorian Lough) and DI Brompton (played by Sam Swansbury)—who do a lot of the grunt work. Commissioner Simpson has a public relations role of giving updates to the media about the investigation. He seems to want all the publicity and glory for solving the case.

The police make the mistake of dismissing the correct suspect profile that a handwriting expert named Dr. Unsworth (played by Sian Clifford) deduced from studying the ransom note and figuring out what type of person wrote it. These detectives are convinced by their own theory that the painting was stolen by an unknown sophisticated gang from another nation, probably from Italy. The detectives also say amongst themselves that a woman who’s a handwriting expert could not possibly know more than these experienced cops.

Through a series of events that won’t be revealed in this review, the painting is discovered in the Bunton house. It’s enough to say that Kempton decides to turn himself in and admit that he “borrowed” the painting, to point out wasteful government spending and to demand that the U.K. government invest in better care for the elderly and military veterans. He pleads not guilty to the theft. None of this is spoiler information, because the movie’s trailer already reveals that Kempton goes on trial for stealing the painting.

Kempton’s trial doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Kempton’s defense attorney Jeremy Hutchinson (played by Matthew Goode) sometimes clashes with Kempton behind the scenes, but they both want to win the case. And so, Kempton and Jeremy find some common ground of agreement. The story has a real-life plot twist revealed in the movie’s last 15 minutes, which show how far Kempton is willing to go to stand by his beliefs, even if it’s at great personal risk to himself.

With a working-class man in his 60s as the protagonist, “The Duke” is the type of British drama movie that doesn’t get made very much anymore. Dorothy is a formidable and strong-willed person in this story (and Mirren performs well in the role, as expected), but she’s really a supporting character who reacts to whatever chaos Kempton has created. Broadbent brings roguish charm to this role, and his performance (which is both amusing and heartbreaking) is the main reason to see this film.

“The Duke” is not perfect by any means. The movie takes a little too long to get to the trial, which is somewhat crammed in toward the end of the film. There are several scenes that over-explain how Kempton has trouble keeping a job because of his tendency to question authority. And there’s a repeated cycle of Dorothy getting upset by Kempton’s mischief, and Kempton promising that he won’t cause any more problems and won’t keep secrets from her. And then, he inevitably breaks his promise.

As an example of Kempton’s unstable employment, there’s a section of the movie showing Kempton in a job as an assembly line worker at a bread factory. He befriends a Pakistani co-worker named Javid Akram (played by Ashley Kumar), who is the only employee in that department who isn’t white. Kempton eventually gets fired for standing up to his racist boss Mr. Walker (played by Craig Conway), who bullies Javid by calling him a racial slur and singling him out for unfair treatment.

“The Duke” also tends to be a little too repetitive with Kempton’s bootlegging of the ITV network (which, unlike the BBC, requires payment to receive) on the TV set in his household’s living room. He tries to dodge the authorities he encounters who attempt to fine him for non-payment, but he eventually spends 13 jays in jail when he gets into a scuffle over it. During his ongoing dispute over this issue, Kempton stages protests on the street with “Free TV for OAP” signs, with Jackie recruited as Kempton’s protest companion. Most people who pass Kempton and Jackie on the street just don’t care—and neither will viewers after a while, since the stolen painting is the more interesting part of the movie.

When Kempton’s legal entanglements make the news, Dorothy is embarrassed, makes profuse apologies to her employer Dolly Gowling (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and promises that she’s not as “unstable” has her husband. Mrs. Gowling, who is married to a difficult and domineering man, has empathy for Kempton. Because she is a supporter of Kempton’s anti-establishment ways, Mrs. Gowling attends his trial as an eager spectator.

Any supporting characters outside of Dorothy and Jackie tend to be drawn in broad strokes that are a little stereotypical. They include the “law and order” characters, such as the aforementioned main detectives; Judge Aarvold (played by James Wilby); prosecutor Edward Cussen (played by John Heffernan); and junior counsel Eric Crowther (played by Joshua McGuire), who works with Jeremy on Kempton’s defense team. Despite some of these narrative flaws, “The Duke” has enough amusing banter, heartfelt moments and well-played scenes to hold the interest of people who are open to watching movies set in 1960s England and that have a retro filmmaking style that matches this era.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Duke” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in Canada and Australia in 2021, and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on February 25, 2022.

Review: ‘Blackbird’ (2020), starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon

September 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rainn Wilson, Sam Neill, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Susan Sarandon and Anson Boon in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Blackbird” (2020)

Directed by Roger Michell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut, the dramatic film “Blackbird” features an all-white cast of characters representing the upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: Long-simmering resentments cause conflicts during a family gathering for a terminally ill woman who wants to die by euthanasia.

Culture Audience: “Blackbird” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about family issues.

Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska in “Blackbird” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

Should people with a terminal disease decide when and how they want to die? It’s an ethical dilemma that has already been decided by Lily Walker, the matriarch of a well-to-do American family. Lily has multiple sclerosis and she wants her doctor husband Paul to give her a lethal dose of medication before her health further declines. The dramatic film “Blackbird” (directed by Roger Michell) is about the family gathering at Lily and Paul’s beach house in the final days that Lily has decided that she’s going to live.

“Blackbird” is a remake of the 2014 Danish film “Silent Heart,” which was written by Christian Torpe, who adapted the movie from his “Silent Heart” novel. Torpe also wrote the screenplay for “Blackbird,” which is a random title for the movie since there’s no blackbird or reference to a blackbird in the story. What’s more important is that it’s a solidly written, well-acted story that isn’t really Oscar-worthy, but it will tug at people’s heartstrings and trigger emotions because there are moments that might remind viewers of their own families.

In “Blackbird” (which takes place in the fictional city of Pontsmill, Connecticut), Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has already come to terms with how she wants to die. Her attitude, while not exactly jubilant, is rather matter-of-fact and often jokingly sarcastic about her impending death. Lily’s husband Paul (played by Sam Neill) is trying to go about life as “normally” as possible while trying not to let it show too much how much of a heavy emotional burden he has to administer the lethal dose of medication that has been ordered specifically for the euthanasia.

Lily wants to die on her own terms because she’s losing the use of her muscles, while her medical diagnosis is that it will only be a matter of months when she will have to use a feeding tube to eat. The beginning of the movie shows members of Lily and Paul’s immediately family, as well as Lily’s longtime British best friend Liz (played by Lindsay Duncan), gathering at Lily and Paul’s home to say their goodbyes.

The family members who have gathered for this bittersweet reunion include Lily and Paul’s two daughters who are total opposites. Elder daughter Jennifer, or Jen (played by Kate Winslet), is a judgmental control freak who likes her life to be well-planned and orderly—and it bothers her if other people’s lives aren’t in order too. Younger daughter Anna (played by Mia Wasikowska) has a very messy life, including jumping around from job to job and being treated for bipolar disorder. It should come as no surprise that Jen and Anna don’t get along very well and have been estranged for years.

Trying not to get in the middle of this sibling feud are their respective love partners: Jen’s mild-mannered and nerdy husband Michael (played Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s on-again/off-again partner Chris (played by Bex Taylor-Klaus), who appears to be nonbinary. (Taylor-Klaus is nonbinary in real life.) Also at this family reunion is Jen and Michael’s teenage son Jonathan (played by Anson Boon), who’s going through that teenage phase where he’s easily embarrassed and irritated by things his parents say and do. Jonathan (who is about 16 or 17 years old) is a well-behaved, academically talented student, but he wants to be an actor, which is a career choice that he knows his parents won’t like.

The movie does not show how Lily and Paul told their loved ones the news about Lily’s planned euthanasia, but by the time the group has gathered at the house, they all know about it, except for Jonathan. Paul eventually takes Jonathan aside for a private talk to break the news to him. Jonathan is shocked, but he’s willing to accept whatever Lily wants because he loves and respects his grandmother. In fact, Lily is the first person in the family whom Jonathan tells that he wants to be an actor. She encourages him to pursue this goal.

But since this is a drama about a family reunion, it isn’t long before the family friction starts. Jen and Anna haven’t seen each other in some years. While they’re alone together, Jen expresses disappointment that Anna wasn’t at their father’s birthday and at Jonathan’s school recital, even though Jen sent several reminders. Anna said she was too busy and really wanted to be there. However, it’s pretty obvious to observant viewers from Anna’s tone of voice and body language that Anna has been avoiding family gatherings because she doesn’t want to be around Jen.

Jen isn’t shy about expressing her disapproval of Anna being unable to settle on a professional career. (It’s not really stated what Jen does with her life, which makes her morally superior attitude even more insufferable.) When she asks Anna how her dance program is going, Anna tells Jen that she’s dropped out of the program. Jen then scolds Anna for not completing the program, as well as Anna giving up on past attempts to train for jobs in yoga therapy, acupuncture and quilting. These were programs that their parents paid for, so Jen tries to make Anna feel guilty by implying that her parents are wasting their money on Anna.

Jen then proceeds to annoy Anna even more when she admonishes Anna for bringing Chris to this intimate and sensitive family reunion, because Jen had asked Anna not to invite Chris. Anna tells Jen that if Jen can bring her husband Michael to this reunion, then Anna can bring Chris. Anna angrily says to Jen, “Chris happens to my husband.” Jen replies, “Are you sure you’re even gay?”

Jen’s apparent homophobia isn’t the only reason why she doesn’t approve of Anna and Chris’ relationship. Anna and Chris (who are dating but don’t live together) have had a rocky romance, and Jen thinks Chris is a lower-class person who isn’t a good fit for their family. Unfortunately, as Jen is telling Anna about how Chris isn’t worthy of being part of their family, Chris walks into the room and overhears this part of the conversation, and then walks out of the room embarrassed.

And as if Jen couldn’t be more condescending and insulting, she tells Anna: “Can you give Mom this whole weekend and not have it revolve around you, Anna?” At this point, Anna has had enough of Jen’s lectures and explodes: “Can you quit being a fucking bitch?”

Of course, there are more arguments that take place, as is typical for movies about family reunions. Most of the conflicts revolve around Anna and Jen. Anna confides in Chris that she secretly plans to prevent Lily’s euthanasia by calling 911 to report a suicide attempt. Why? Because Anna doesn’t want Lily to die and she wants to spend more time with her mother to make up for time that they spent apart.

And since this is a movie about family reunions, it has the usual trope about secrets being revealed. One thing that’s not a secret is that Liz used to date Paul, before Paul ever met Lily. What is a secret, which Liz and Lily (who used to be free-spirited hippies) discuss while they walk on the beach together, is that back in the early ’70s, they made a drunken attempt to become lesbian lovers, but it didn’t work out. They have a laugh about it all these years later.

The family has gathered in November, close to Thanksgiving, but one of Lily’s last wishes is that they have their Christmas celebration early. She asks Paul to make the Christmas dinner and Michael to go outside and cut down a small tree that will be used for Christmas decorations. This family dinner, where Lily gives everyone a personal gift from her, is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sensitive viewers should have tissues on hand for this tearjerking moment.

With this high caliber of talent in the cast, it’s no surprise that the acting in the movie is top-notch. It’s a story that could easily be adapted into a play, since most of the action takes place inside the house. The beach setting (the movie was actually filmed in Chichester, England, not Connecticut) is lovely, but it’s not very essential to the story.

As good as the acting is in the movie, “Blackbird” doesn’t quite have what it takes to be a movie worthy of a lot of prestigious awards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movie, but so much of the “family reunion when someone is dying” aspect has been done before in a familiar manner in other movies, that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way that “Blackbird” tells this type of story. It’s not exactly like a formulaic “disease of the week TV movie,” but the character development is lacking in some ways.

The men in the movie are written as incomplete sketches who mostly react to what the strong-willed women in the family (Lily and Jen) want. Paul essentially admits that he’s just carrying out Lily’s demands, when he tells Liz in a private conversation that people who decide to die by euthanasia are rarely insane or depressed, but they are “deeply controlling.” Jonathan isn’t quite a man yet, but his personality is also fairly generic. He shows typical signs of teen rebellion to both of his parents, but he’s willing to please his beloved grandmother Lily.

The conflicts between Jen and Anna suck up a lot of the emotions in the story, which leaves little room for viewers to really get to know Paul and Michael and what they are feeling. Anna and Jen’s love/hate relationship with each other often leaves Chris feeling like a helpless outsider, since Chris has been dating Anna off and on for about three years, and the issues between Anna and Jen have been going on much longer than that. Lily’s unconditional acceptance of Chris goes a long way in how Jen eventually warms up to Chris. There’s a very good scene that Chris and Jen have together where they confront the awkward family tension that has existed between them.

“Blackbird” isn’t a perfect film, but it realistically raises issues that will make people think about what they would do if someone in their family chose euthanasia as a way to die. How much time would be enough time to prepare the family? What grudges can or can’t be resolved before the loved one dies? And what if someone in the family objects to the euthanasia and wants to stop it, even if it means getting family members into legal trouble? There are no easy answers to these questions, but “Blackbird” is a compelling look at how a fictional family deals with these very real and emotionally complicated dilemmas.

Screen Media Films, in association with Fathom Events, released “Blackbird” in select U.S. cinemas for two nights of previews on September 14 and September 15, 2020. The movie expands to more U.S. cinemas and is available on VOD on September 18, 2020.

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