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National Treasures: The Outstanding Careers of The Duke’s Actors and Director

24 Feb 2022 | 6 MINS READ
Ian Haydn Smith

The Duke is the final work by filmmaker and theatre director Roger Michell. Starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, it captures the spirit of classic British social comedies, while showcasing the skills of two of our finest screen stars, says Ian Haydn Smith.

From his singular name, through to the crime that saw it emblazoned on the front pages of national newspapers, you couldn’t conjure Kempton Bunton up. In 1961, he journeyed from his home in Newcastle to London to lodge a complaint with the British government regarding the miniscule size of the weekly national pension and the television licence fee charge that retirees were required to pay. At one point during the trip, he popped into the National Gallery, only to walk out some minutes later with Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. His reasoning was that the British government had paid £140,000 (over £3 million today) to prevent the painting leaving the country. The Duke is the story of how this happened.

If this crime had taken place in the 1930s, there’s a strong likelihood it would have been made into a classic Ealing comedy in the vein of Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob or The Man in the White Suit (both 1951). Like those films, The Duke plays the social message lightly, never allowing it to eclipse the comic potential of the material, but nevertheless giving it some grit. It’s this combination that places the film alongside other work by Michell, who died unexpectedly in September 2021. Though arguably best-known for his London-set, Hollywood-styled rom-com Notting Hill (1999), Michell offered rich portraits of British life in his stage and screen career.

Before turning to film, Michell enjoyed success on the stage, directing at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. It was at the latter that he encountered Hanif Kureishi. They would first collaborate on the four-part TV adaptation of Kureishi’s celebrated novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), Michell’s second TV assignment after Downtown Lagos (1992) and a celebrated portrait of London in the 1970s, which featured a soundtrack by David Bowie.

Michell and Kureishi would continue working together over the next two decades. The Mother (2003) was a powerful account of a relationship with an older woman (Anne Reid) and a man (Daniel Craig) who is also involved with her daughter. (Craig would also appear in Michell’s less successful 2004 adaptation of Ian McKewan’s Enduring Love.) Venus (2006) was a wilier comedy drama that gave Peter O’Toole a sublime and perfectly tailored late-career role. He plays an ageing actor whose life is given a boost by the presence of his best friend’s grand-niece (Jodie Whittaker), who takes a shine to him. And in their last collaboration together, Le Week-End (2013), Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a bickering couple who return to Paris, their honeymoon destination, in an attempt to inject some excitement into their relationship.

Notting Hill gave Michell greater exposure in the US and with it came offers for a variety of projects. (Through his association with Daniel Craig, Michell was even offered the reins of the 2008 Bond adventure Quantum of Solace, but wisely turned the job down because of the impending Writers Guild of America strike that eventually stymied that production.) He directed the TV-set comedy Morning Glory (2010) with Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton, before moving on to the lavish Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney and Olivia Williams. But arguably his best Hollywood film was Changing Lanes (2002), a taut, race-tinged thriller starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson.

Over the last two decades, Michell returned to the stage regularly and adapted a number of classic period novels for the large and small screen. In each, character was everything, drawing out the nuances of a given scene and cementing his status as an excellent director of actors. Nowhere is this more evident than in his work with Broadbest and Mirren on The Duke.

Broadbent first came to fame through the unconventional stage and small-screen productions of the National Theatre of Brent, a comedy double act – with Patrick Barlow – that mocked aspects of British theatre. Now in its fourth decade, for the last 20 years the act has mostly been confined to radio, with productions such as The Complete and Utter History of the Mona Lisa (2004), Giant Ladies That Changed The World (2011) and The National Theatre of Brent's Illustrated Guide to Sex and How It Was Done (2018). Early screen roles included the game-show compere in Time Bandits (1981) and Dr. Jaffe in Brazil (1985), both directed by Terry Gilliam. But his first breakthrough came as one of the cast members of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed comedy Life Is Sweet (1990). He would continue working with Leigh on Topsy-Turvy (1999), Vera Drake (2004) and Another Year (2010).

During this time, Broadbent became one of our most prolific actors, rarely taking the lead, but making an impression with each role. Directors he collaborated with included Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, 1992), Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway, 1994), Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, 2001), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York, 2002), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, 2007) and Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008). But it was his portrayal of John Bayley, the partner of Iris Murdoch in Richard Eyre’s moving biopic Iris (2001) that saw Broadbent achieve the greatest acclaim, winning him an Oscar for his performance. (He won a BAFTA in the same year for his exuberant Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!)

Broadbent was also praised by critics for a portrayal of the controversial law lord in Tom Hooper’s powerful TV drama Longford (2006), his attention to detail here highlighting what makes him such a compelling presence. It’s a skill that’s evident throughout The Duke, as he conveys Bunton’s frustration with a system he feels penalises people his age.

Mirren’s career began a little earlier. Like Michell, she was first noticed through her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Following an outrageous, single-scene screen debut in the oh-so-60s experimental satire Herostratus (1967) and playing the role Hermia in Peter Hall’s filmed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), Mirren took on her first major role in Age of Consent (1969), starring opposite James Mason. It was directed by Michael Powell, the legendary filmmaker who, with Emeric Pressburger, produced the acclaimed A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). She followed it with a variety of roles in the 1970s, before raising her profile in the 1980s, first by playing the tough moll opposite Bob Hoskins’ gangster in The Long Good Friday (1980) and a venomous Morgana in Excalibur (1981) before attracting no small amount of controversy as part of the cast in Peter Greenaway’s anti-Thatcher satire The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).

Two years later, Mirren hit critical and commercial paydirt, playing DCI Jane Tennison in the acclaimed and long-running crime series Prime Suspect (1991-2003). With its emphasis on character – a key element to the success of writer Linda La Plante – Mirren flourished in the series, creating one of the most iconic TV cops.

The success of Prime Suspect led to an even greater variety of roles, from the lead in the powerful IRA drama Some Mother’s Son (1996), Starring opposite Jack Nicholson in Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001), the housekeeper in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) and a WI pin-up in Calendar Girls (2003) to her Oscar and BAFTA-winning portrayal of the British monarch at the time of Princess Diana’s death in The Queen (2006).

Mirren’s versatility is evident in the variety of films she has appeared in over the course of the last decade. Alongside leading roles in dramas such as The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), Woman in Gold (2015) and The Good Liar (2019), she has impressed as Sofya Tolstoy in The Last Station (2010), Alma Reville in Hitchcock (2012) and a vituperative Hedda Hopper in Trumbo (2015). However, she has also given Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham a lesson or two in how to kick ass in some style, appearing in both the Fast & Furious franchise and the Red films.

But Mirren is truly in her element in a film like The Duke. Along with Broadbent – and aided by Michell, who knows just how much space to give his actors – she dives head first into a character, transforming the smallest detail into a telling moment, and imbuing Dorothy Bunton with a depth that adds credibility to this eccentric tale.

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Ian Haydn Smith

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