The Duke (2020) *** – Seen at the Cinema

The most stunning twist since Keyser Soze shucked off his disguise in The Usual Suspects (1995). But where Soze’s trick was a cinematic triumph, here moviegoers are duped by unfair sleight-of-hand. 

If ever there was a movie of two halves, this is it. For the first half we are presented with  Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) as a dour working-class liberal devoted to fighting every cause. In the second half he’s a stand-up comic with the legal profession eating out of his hand, as if the character that turned up in court bore no relation to the one in the initial section. And if his defense for stealing from the National Gallery a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington seemed rather far-fetched even for someone as cause-addicted as him that is because, as we discover in the trick ending, it was just that, entirely made up.

You may also have wondered how a 60-year-man was quite so nimble as to scale a high fence and climb up a couple of floors by ladder, then the trick at the end reveals that this too is part of the audience deception.

Which leaves you wondering just why the core of the story – that a father volunteers to take the place of his guilty son and face the prospect of years in prison – does not even merit a scene. If it wasn’t for the performance of Broadbent and Helen Mirren as his wife, as tour de force an acting partnership as you could hope for, you would wonder what on earth was the point of making the film.

Who outside Britain has ever heard of the license fee? Everyone knows about the BBC, of course, but I would doubt very much if anyone has any idea that what appears to be a free public service broadcasting body (akin to PBS in the U.S.) actually has to be paid for on an annual basis by every single person in the country who owns a television set. Since Bunton claims he stole the painting in protest against certain members of the public being forced to pay this fee, you might wonder how this is going to go down in foreign parts. Setting Bunton up as a working-class rebel on the basis of this preposterous idea is one of the barmiest notions ever to afflict a screenwriter.

This movie has been receiving rave reviews – and picked up £3 million at the box office – because it is charming, pokes fun at the BBC and the Police and the Government and feels like a latter-day Ealing comedy with Broadbent and Mirren in top form. I was duped by the reviews and by the trailer which showed all the funny bits but was bored for a first half that seemed like a very out-of-date attack on too many targets, without providing any real measure of the man who turned into a supreme entertainer in the second half. Some of the issues he raised such as racism were worthy of his defence, but others were simply ignored. The fact that workers could be dismissed in the 1960s for any reason whatsoever with no recourse to tribunals was glossed over. The fact that he was sacked for allowing his taxi passengers to travel for free – the taxi owners not Kempton thus footing the bill – or possibly for boring is passengers to death with his strident views is equally ignored.

I have to say that initially I did enjoy the film. But afterwards I began to have a niggling feeling that somewhere along the way I had been cheated. If Bunton knew he was innocent and was simply taking the fall for his guilty son, his idealistic crusade was pointless. You would have to ask why did he not just return the painting? I can’t believe there was no confrontation with his son. Are we expected to imagine that Bunton just congratulated his son on providing him with a perfect opportunity to embarrass the BBC and thought to himself it was well worth a jail sentence regardless of the fact it would put his wife through hell.

It feels like the director was expecting after the revelation at the end that the audience would just say “oh now it all makes sense” rather than the opposite, that it made no sense at all unless we were shown collusion between father and son, and the son especially accepting the burden of the sacrifice his father was making.

In The Usual Suspects, audiences went back over the film to marvel at just how clever Soze had been. Here, though, when you try to do the same, it doesn’t work. The Bunton we are shown in the first half was not a deliberate fiction dreamt up by the character, but simply a directorial device to misdirect the audience. The big reveal appears without any reference to the father and no sign of guilt on the part of the son.

This was not one of those legal pictures where there would be a last-minute reprieve or a lawyer in the Perry Mason mold saving the day. It was a contrivance so Bunton would have his day in court and deliver his philosophy on life to a wider audience. For all I know he may well have thought such an opportunity was worth the imprisonment. But for all this sleight-of-hand to work the director had to just completely ignore the core relationship between father and son and between innocence and guilt. It would say a lot for a son that he carried out the theft out of love for his deluded father, but such a scene would have to be left to our imagination.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

2 thoughts on “The Duke (2020) *** – Seen at the Cinema”

  1. Which leaves you wondering just why the core of the story – that a father volunteers to take the place of his guilty son and face the prospect of years in prison – does not even merit a scene.

    This. It’s a nice little film, even if icence fee revolution was never going to enrapture an international audience. I didn’t mind the slight of hand, since we’re meant to wonder how Bunton could have pulled this off at all. But as you say, something gets lost in the process; the central drama wasn’t properly addessed, leaving a lightweight confection…

    Liked by 2 people

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