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


Jodie Whittaker and Peter O'Toole in Venus


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



15 December



Soviet spacecraft Venera 7 lands on Venus, 1970

On this day in 1970, the Soviet Union landed a spacecraft on Venus. The Venera 7 had been launched from Earth on 17 August 1970 and arrived in the proximity of Venus nearly four months later. At this point the spacecraft began its descent, retaining the rocket that had powered it to Venus to use as a heat shield until the atmosphere was dense enough for the use of a parachute, at which point the rocket was jettisoned. At 60km up the parachute deployed, but it failed. The probe hit the surface at a speed of 16.5 metres per second (about 36mph) and was damaged. The scientists initially believed that the probe was kaput but in fact it was still transmitting data, albeit rather weakly. However, after 23 minutes it did fall silent. The only data it sent back were atmospheric readings (97% carbon dioxide) and the surface temperature (475ºC). As the name suggests, Venera was the seventh of a total of 16 probes to Venus, the first having been launched in 1961 and the last in 1984. Ten landed on Venus, the first being the ill-fated Venera 7. Other firsts included the Venera 4 (first man made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet, 1967), Venera 9 (first to return images from another planet, 1975), Venera 15 (first to perform high-resolution radar mapping of Venus, 1983). Because of the incredibly high temperatures of the surface of Venus, the life of a probe on the planet’s surface can be measured in minutes, though by the time the USSR was launching the final probes, a couple of hours had become the norm. If, like me, you find yourself astonished by your own ignorance of one of the greatest space exploration programs ever devised by humans, this website is a mine of useful information




Venus (2006, dir: Roger Michell)

What happens when an old guy fall for a young girl? Not a middle aged guy and a 20something, but a properly old man and a girl young enough to be his grand-daughter? That’s the story that Venus tells, with a great degree of subtlety and facing up to the charge that it’s in dirty old man territory. Peter O’Toole is the old guy, a man taken aback by his feelings for the gutter-mouthed great-niece of an old friend (Leslie Phillips). Jodie Whittaker plays the girl, a teenager who sucks up the warmth that the old guy is giving off, increasingly aware that it’s more than just affection, and advancing towards it because she’s been starved of love by her family. He wants sex, of course, though he’s probably too old to do it; and after a while she stops feeling disgusted and starts to realise that in fact she holds all the cards. And how she makes him sweat, and ache. This is what the bulk of the film is about, the dance around the possibility/impossibility of it all, with O’Toole laying on the pathos in great big actorly slabs – he’s playing a vain old actor, appropriately – while Whittaker does that amazing thing that great actresses can do, regularly pulling off emotional 180º about-faces to confound him, and amaze us. It’s a comedy, with dark pools. Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell had been here before, with The Mother, the 2003 drama about an older woman (Anne Reid) and a younger man (Daniel Craig). And the duo would complete the thematic threesome about love among the wrinklies with 2013’s Le Week-End, about a married couple (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) raking over the embers of their passion in Paris. And in all of them Roger Michell’s ability to get credible emotion out of his actors – not that any of those names actually have a problem there either – provides an extra wallop. And in this film especially, whose subject matter is wandering perilously close to uncomfortable territory, that really helps.



Why Watch?


  • The great support cast – Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave
  • The director of Notting Hill working with less photogenic material
  • O’Toole’s eighth Oscar nomination and his last great role
  • Because Whittaker is so good


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Venus – at Amazon






Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root in Persuasion



Before popping up seemingly out of nowhere when he directed Notting Hill, Roger Michell had had a successful career as a theatre director, at the groundbreaking Royal Court Theatre in London with Samuel Beckett and John Osborne (where he also met Danny Boyle), then on to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) before switching to directing for TV. Persuasion was his second gig for the BBC, and considering that stories of difficult love (Notting Hill, The Mother, Venus) would be his future, and the theatre was his past, it’s a perfect melding of the two. His cast for Persuasion is theatrical through and through, Amanda Root (an RSC stalwart) playing Jane Austen’s spinster heroine Anne Elliot, a woman coming up to a slow boil on the flame rekindled by Captain Wentworth, the recently returned suitor she was persuaded to reject years before. Wentworth is played by Ciarán Hinds, also an RSC old hand. His is a knockout Wentworth (no wonder Hollywood spooned him up), a bluff old sea dog now reconciled to a life on his own, in the same way that Elliot has also come to terms with the prospect of being, without a husband, a social nobody. From these two unlikely characters, using actors Hollywood would never cast in the roles (ie they’re good looking but they don’t set your pants on fire), and carefully fanning one of the spinsterish Austen’s most passionate, personal works, Michell slowly builds a stressful, uncertain romance that will have you digging the fingernails into your palms – it would certainly make sense for these two lonely individuals to fall for each other, but they’ve got to do it for all the right reasons, not just because they’re both available, right?

Look down the cast list, from Corin Redgrave and Fiona Shaw to Samuel West and Simon Russell Beale – Michell has A-list British theatrical talent to work with. Another weapon in his armoury is the film’s production design, by William Dudley, who shows us the 18th century as it really might look – lived-in, scuffed, possibly in need of a lick of paint here and there.

The result is a film of great subtlety and believability, made for TV but gaining a theatrical release in the US (which doesn’t happen often), a simmering romance that sneaks up unawares, Michell catching the characters’ turbulent inner feelings without ever getting the megaphone out. In its own quiet way it is, as Miss Austen would doubtless say, kick-ass stuff.


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Persuasion – at Amazon