The Duke

Kempton and Dorothy at home

The Duke is a great example of the sort of film that Brits make for domestic consumption and which often do pretty well internationally as well. Playing up to harmless stereotypes, they’re full of silly sausages with funny voices and odd, eccentric behaviours. Here for the most part it’s Northerners being earthy and honest and principled, while down South a different sort of daffy stereotype – posh, restrained, clean – are hauling on barristers’ outfits and judges’ horsehair wigs to use Latinate turns of phrase in the most rarefied of settings, the courtroom.

Both export beautifully. Both reassure the natives even more. The stereotypes are diamond tooled in The Duke, a true story about the theft of Goya’s painting of the first Duke of Wellington in 1961 by a Newcastle man who did it as a Robin Hood act of social levelling-up, a cry against unjust taxation (the TV licence, used to fund the BBC in this case).

Jim Broadbent plays the thief, would-be playwright Kempton Bunton, with a thirst for social justice that makes him near unemployable in local factories and a thirst for knowledge that has equipped him with enough autodidact education to realise that the social order is a gigantic conspiracy. Note: he’s the leftwing kneejerk of old, not to be confused with the rightwing kneejerk of our current era.

Kempton’s wife Dorothy is another familiar working-class type – a houseproud, hard-working woman who does everything absolutely by the book and fully expects that everyone else does too. Rounding out the family, barely, are Fionn Whitehead as the son, Jackie, who’s probably going to go places once he’s got to university, his older, tearaway brother, Kenny (Jack Bandeira), a chip off dad’s unorthodox block, but with less of an interest in learning, and Kenny’s up-herself girlfriend Pammy (an attention grabbing Charlotte Spencer). Meanwhile, in a better part of town, is Mrs Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), half a character thrown in to wipe up complaints that this is all a bit too stereotyped. Look, a posh woman. Up north! And acting as half a back story to add the illusion of depth and some emotional heft, Kempton and Dorothy’s dead daughter, about whom they never talk.

Matthew Goode dressed as a lawyer
Matthew Goode as Jeremy Hutchinson QC

The story: rebellious Kempton steals the painting, hides it in his house for some time, then returns it to the gallery in broad daylight, winding up in court where he’s defended by the very urbane Jeremy Hutchinson QC (Matthew Goode, very good at this sort of thing) but is actually doing alright on his own. His grandstanding show as a bluff, funny, smart, twinkling Northerner is just the sort of character the newspapers love (as do screenwriters and directors).

It’s an oddly slight story. At one point the aggressively avaricious Pammy realises that Kempton has possession of this painting that half the country is looking for, and the next minute Kempton has decided to return it, as if this homeopathic trace of danger were enough to satisfy a screenwriter’s requirement for jeopardy, or stakes.

It barely matters. Because for the most part this is the Jim Broadbent show, and he dazzles with a display of enjoyable tics and gurns, deadpan delivery and deadly comic timing. No one else really has much to do, not even Helen Mirren, who shows how good she is by somehow managing to drag the spotlight her way in the handful of lines she’s given.

There’s some archive TV footage sprinkled in here and there and the production design – those awful sofas, gloomy interiors in spic-and-span two-up, two-down houses is bang on the money. It’s also director Roger Michell’s final film – he died before it was released – and he’s more in the Notting Hill mode than in the trio of meatier “difficult relationship” films he made with writer Hanif Kureishi (The Mother, Venus, Le Week-End). Light-as-air transitions, a solid depiction of place and time, no fat to get in the way of a story designed most of all to be entertaining. He makes it look easy.

The Duke – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


James McAvoy as the deranged cop Bruce Robertson in Filth




The last film I saw that had any Irvine Welsh involvement was The Magnificent 11, a comedy so peculiarly inept that I started to think it was deliberate, a tax write-off perhaps, or a spoof of depressing British comedies of the early 1970s, in which girls with blue eye-liner would shed an ill-fitting bra to reveal dog-eared breasts.


Jon S Baird’s adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 novel is far more what we expect from the writer of Trainspotting. Welsh has been out of fashion just long enough to be due a comeback, but is this what our New Puritan age is clamouring for – the sweary, druggy, skanky story of a very naughty Edinburgh copper?


The answer to that question will be weighed by the tonnage of bums on seats. Meanwhile, there’s James McAvoy’s performance to enjoy. It’s a big Oliver Reed man-beast of a turn with McAvoy as the beefy, hairy, bloky Bruce Robertson, a foul-mouthed, bipolar, sweaty Jock copper with stained teeth who is shagging, snorting and bull-charging his way towards a personal and career meltdown.


Outside Robertson’s head everything is Miss Jean Brodie by comparison. His fellow officers are capable, sensible, down to earth. There’s John Sessions, all bumptious authority as Robertson’s boss, while Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots are the 21st century cops who know how to bend to political correctness and how to bend it their way, unlike Robertson.


At the dusty Masonic meeting all of them routinely attend Robertson hooks in with a tweedy owlish character called Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely escort towards the brink. The women in Robertson’s life are Chrissie (Kate Dickie, again heroically getting her kit off for Scotland in some athletic sex scenes), and Bunty (Shirley Henderson), whom Robertson is harassing with sex-pest phone calls, just for the hell of it.


With nods to Dennis Potter, when it’s not following Robertson as he ricochets through police duties, Filth plays interior fantasy as exterior reality. Most obviously in Robertson’s scene with a taxi driver (played by David Soul) as the two lip-sync along to Soul’s 1977 hit single Silver Lady while backing singers pop up from the back seat to contribute ooh-ahhs. But there are other hallucinatory episodes, in which Robertson is visited by a crackpot Australian shrink (Jim Broadbent) who goads his patient on to even worse excess. All very Singing Detective and very funny.


But never mind the interludes, what drove this big bad man to this pretty pass? You know, I don’t care. And I don’t think Welsh really does either. His main focus is to wind up deluded grotesques and set them off running around causing damage, most particularly to themselves. He’s never been that great at what you might call the comedown, the getout. Luckily, for the most part, what we get here is the good stuff – a violent frothing custodian of the law taunted by visions of people in animal heads as he falls apart in front of our eyes.


It is hugely enjoyable. But Filth also insists on being grown up and explaining things. And the more it goes into Robertson’s psychological motivation – his brother’s early death, his wife’s absence from the marital home – the less I enjoyed it. It really is a film of two parts. Part one is kept afloat by Welsh’s funny, fast and sweary energy and McAvoy’s cortisol-burning performance as a Rabelaisian monster doing what the hell he wants and succeeding because he’s smarter and more driven than the others.


Part two is the descent. And after the fireworks of part one, the drool and sentimentality of part two is something of a downer. And without a compensating lift in pace elsewhere, it’s not surprising that, at the cinema I saw this at, people started to shift in their seats.


A relation of Woody Harrelson’s cop-out-of-time in Rampart, Robertson is a brute, but he’s doing what a lot of us would like to do. He’s behaving badly and he has the wit and the balls to get away with it. As Filth hits the home straight it suddenly asks us – in a “now look, you’ve had your fun” volte-face – to engage emotionally with people we were being encouraged to laugh at only a few minutes before: bored Henderson, timid Marsan, oversexed Dickie, ridiculous Sessions. The first half of Filth is pretty near perfect and, you know, we get it, we know Robertson is not a nice man, the film’s title is more than just an allusion to a nickname for policemen generally. Director Jon Baird keeps faith with the original novel, but he loses sight a little of what has made his film so entertaining. Irvine Welsh isn’t infallible – see The Magnificent 11 for confirmation. Couldn’t the director have just sent the raging Robertson off over a cliff, Thelma and Louise style?


© Steve Morrissey 2013







Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner in Topsy-Turvy

Lovers of costume drama and light operetta are in for a treat. And so are people who can’t stand either, thanks to Mike Leigh, more usually known as a purveyor of working-class drama to the realm.

Taking as its starting point the creative roadblock reached by the librettist WS Gilbert and his writing partner, the composer Arthur Sullivan, after the relative failure of their Princess Ida in 1884, Leigh’s film follows the duo as they struggle towards the rejuvenating success of The Mikado. Leigh’s masterstroke is to weave the composer/librettist’s full antler stand-off – Gilbert wanted to write an opera called The Magic Lozenge; Sullivan most definitely didn’t – with an oblique commentary on our own age’s attitudes towards foreign cultures and techno-gadgetry.

Running through Topsy-Turvy is Leigh’s obvious regard for the librettist’s facility with a lyric, Gilbert’s rhythms as near to rapping as Victorians got. Plus his enthusiasm for Gilbert and Sullivan’s often disparaged collaborations; Leigh serves the musical numbers straight up and wink-free – there’s not a dry irony in the house. All this and a stone-faced Jim Broadbent, playing a bluff Gilbert to Allan Corduner’s waspish Sullivan – two more reasons to see this fabulously entertaining film.

Topsy-Turvy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2000