Wednesday 2 March 2022

Crank: "The Duke"

A small grey cloud hovers over the otherwise peppy and buoying caper
The Duke, and that cloud is the sudden passing of its director Roger Michell late last year, aged 65. One of our most self-effacing storytellers, Michell was someone the industry could rely upon to bring safe hands to projects varied; you don't wind up with a filmography that includes a blockbusting romcom (Notting Hill), a steely Hollywood star vehicle (Changing Lanes) and an Ian McEwan adaptation (Enduring Love) without elevated levels of canniness, flexibility and skill. Here, he senses he has a good (true) story, one that doesn't need gussying up any more than screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have, and so he endeavours to keep out of yarn's way as it winds down from Tyneside to the heart of the British Establishment. En route, Michell reminds us that sometimes direction is a matter of careful, considered nudging rather than emptily grand gestures. It's the story of Kempton Bunton (played here by Jim Broadbent), a pipe-smoking old puffin from the North East who, as the film has it, very much lived up to the eccentricity of his own name. Time and again, we watch him being fired from his places of work (a taxi rank, a bakery), in large part because his mind keeps wandering toward his chosen cause: the abolition of the TV licence fee for the over-70s. ("Free TV for the OAPs", as a placard in his cramped living room puts it.) The legend goes that one afternoon in the early, pre-swinging 1960s, Bunton popped down to London to steal off with Goya's much-discussed portrait of the Duke of Wellington, then being exhibited at the National Gallery; his ploy was to strike a blow for the little guy, while refocusing the tabloids' restless attention on his particular bugbear. It didn't quite play out like that, but Bunton proves the kind of character who serves light comedies like this extremely well: a principled crank, someone whose waywardness is only ever partly deliberate, but almost always watchable and amusing.

The film Michell constructs around him is nothing if not thoroughly foursquare, one of those movies the British film industry has made ever since Ealing first opened its gates, and thus has learnt to do rather well. A more than workable screenplay has been knocked together, then cast with players who don't require all that much nudging. If there's any cosiness here, it perhaps stems from the fact a tale about the invisibility of senior citizens has been filmed with two eminently familiar faces, yet Broadbent and Helen Mirren (as Bunton's long-suffering wife Dolly) mesh well as a couple, and individually mine the writing for its rich pockets of subtext. (An idea forms that Bunton's eccentricity is as much a form of self-expression as the plays and short stories he's written about the couple's late daughter; tamped down by social norms, his grief is coming out in unexpected places, as a cry for help.) Michell can in some ways leave these seasoned troupers to it and instead concentrate on guiding the story's shape and momentum: a mid-film intervention from Charlotte Spencer as the Byker equivalent of a femme fatale, a succession of twists towards the end as the widely reported Bunton line unravels under cross-examination. Yes, we're headed for the courtroom, but Michell clearly resolved to make these scenes as entertaining as possible, with choice, crowdpleasing cutaways to defence lawyer Matthew Goode - our back-up Hugh Grant - as Bunton/Broadbent gets up to further, premium-grade mischief on the witness stand. The groundwork for this underdog's triumph has already been laid, in a working-class milieu that (contra Belfast) feels properly lived-in. If not quite the full Ken Loach, this is at least something Loach might nod at with recognition and respect: more litter than usual in the streets, old-school chauvinism in the workplace. Michell does some of his sharpest work between the smoke-stained walls of the Buntons' terraced home, defining the various imbalances of a household where the man wearing the trousers only has time to scheme because there's a woman cooking, cleaning and fussing around him. At its very best, The Duke reminded me of Stephen Frears' better period projects: it has the same fondly satirical eye for telling street- and sofa-level detail. Not many directors can spot those, let alone knead them into a multiplex cocklewarmer. In the wake of Michell's passing, there are even fewer now.

The Duke is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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