The Duke (2020)

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It seems churlish to criticise this sepia-toned homage to working class heroes as it’s clear from the outset that it’s not trying to rock any boats. And who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren in a ‘based on a true story’ hagiography of the man who stole a painting from the London National Gallery in 1961?

Well, maybe me. The narrative arc is somewhat predictable. Kempton (Broadbent) is an idealist, railing against the unfairness of the television license system for pensioners, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Mirren). Living in working class Newcastle, he can’t seem to hold down a job and becomes entangled in the heist of newly bought Goya painting, hoping in the aftermath to highlight the plight of the elderly.

We start and end in the courtroom and it’s one of those retellings where the court officials are twinkly-eyed and the posh lady of the house (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) where Dorothy works as a housekeeper sings Jerusalem from the public gallery.

If you take it at face value, it’s pretty inoffensive. What was galling was the romanticisation of Kempton‘s idealism where, in reality, he is so self absorbed that his activism can never be effective. His wife scrubs fireplaces so he can throw in job after job but maintain his amiably smug adherence to principles. The film would have been much better if it had been the story of Dorothy, just as damaged as Kempton but doing far more good by living a life, raising children, putting food on the table and keeping a family together despite having a husband who doesn’t seem to spend a moment thinking about her needs.

Most will walk out of this feeling warm and fuzzy and with the belief that the criminal justice system knows how to be fair when a well-meaning person isn’t ‘really’ a criminal. Right!

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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