The Duke is a heart-warming comedy about standing up for the more vulnerable within society, writes Film Critic Anna Emmerson Robinson

English with Drama 3rd year student

The latest film featuring acting legends Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren is The Duke, directed by Roger Mitchell. The final film made before his death in 2021, Mitchell creates a heart-warming comedy based on a true story. Set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1961, the film tells the story of 60 year old Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) who steals a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya from the National Gallery in the hopes that the government will use the cost of the painting to pay for free TV licences for war veterans and pensioners. The film follows the theft, the hiding of the painting and the court case that follows.

It was great to see characters of all classes and communities coming together for one common cause and purpose

There are also underlying themes of grief, crime, poverty, and class as the family navigate working-class life and the struggle to survive on menial jobs. In his spare time, Kempton writes plays about the people he meets in his life as a taxi driver, and about his family, who do not wish to be viewed as spectacles on the BBC. This notion of self-education and an interest in culture and plays is interesting and really adds depth to his character. The main theme in the film, though, is the determination of Kempton to stand up for the most vulnerable in society and his desire to help those around him, calling out racists and protecting his loved ones from the horrors of the world. He sees people as people rather than as something to be used, and sees the good in everyone. His faith in humanity is heart-warming and Broadbent’s comedic timing really lends itself to the main character as we become enthralled in his world and his chaotic antics. His long-suffering wife, Dolly (Dame Helen Mirren), and his sons Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira) often get caught up in his activities, but their strong family unit is a key component of Kempton’s loveable character. Whilst we see the Buntons struggling for money, we also meet middle-class characters in the form of councillor’s wife Mrs Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Kempton’s barrister (Matthew Goode). It was great to see characters of all classes and communities coming together for one common cause and purpose, rather than be divided by societal stereotypes.

The accents were incredibly well done, and as someone from Newcastle, it was great to hear how much effort the cast had put in to getting the Geordie accent correct, as accents can really make or break the immersion of a film. Despite being filmed in Bradford and Leeds, much of the set did look like old Newcastle, when the shipyards were the main focus of the River Tyne and the city. Using CGI and found footage, Mitchell creates a Newcastle recognisable from history books and old films, and not like the modern city with seven bridges that I know today. It truly felt like I was watching what my grandparents would have experienced, adding to the authenticity of the film. And, by using found footage of London and tight framing of Broadbent, it was possible to feel like we were in 1960s London outside the National Gallery without having the extreme cost of shutting down Trafalgar Square and creating huge sets to disguise modern buildings and advertisement boards. The shifts between the CGI, found footage and filmed material was very smooth, and it was hard to tell when one ended and another began.

Additionally, the script mentioned various places and businesses around Newcastle that were real – and many still exist now – which further added to the authenticity of the ‘real life story.’ Whilst the script is in some places not the same as the true story, I had never actually heard of the theft previously so I did not notice any discrepancies until I looked up the original afterwards. However, the message and character of Kempton in both the real and fictional events seem to be largely consistent – and his amenable character and desire to stand up for the working man is evident in both.

Becoming absorbed was easy, and I felt truly engrossed in Kempton’s story

The casting was excellent, with Mirren and Broadbent making a perfect couple troubled by grief and money worries but determined to love each other regardless. The casting of their sons was brilliant too, as we see the chalk-and-cheese lives they lead. The pace of the film was satisfying – at one hour 36 minutes, it was the length of film we were so used to before three hour epics became the norm. The story flows well and whilst there are moments of stillness, they do not last for an overwhelming amount of time, and as such it is easy to stay attentive to watching the film and not become distracted. This means that becoming absorbed was easy, and I felt truly engrossed in Kempton’s story. The soundtrack was full of authentic 1960s music which aided the plot and added moments of joy and laughter. Whilst I did not recognise many of the songs, they were all upbeat and I definitely heard some feet tapping; a motif of the Swinging 60s.


Against a backdrop of grief, money worries and job insecurity in one of the most impoverished areas of Newcastle, a character of passion, determination and care for others emerges and takes us on a 90 minute journey of comedy and heart-warming connection. Broadbent as Kempton is fantastic and is the perfect older actor to take on the role. His ability to create such an affable and loveable character had me crying at one point, and I thoroughly enjoyed following his journey to help those around him feel connected and less lonely. Mitchell’s exploration of class and the political message of caring for the vulnerable and elderly is present but does not overwhelm the plot, leaving just enough to think about without snatching focus away from the Buntons. This film is a must-watch if you’re in need of something light-hearted and feel-good, and was a great way to spend an evening at the cinema.

Rating: 9/10

The Duke is out now in cinemas

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