In 1961, a daring daylight robbery was committed in London, when Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington (1812-14), recently auctioned for a massive £140,000 ($186,000), was stolen from its new home in the capital’s National Gallery.
The story was big news – so big, in fact, that the painting was referenced in 1963’s “Dr. No,” in a scene where Sean Connery’s James Bond spots it lying about in Dr. No’s lair, as if 007’s notorious adversary were the brains behind the theft. In real life, however, the mastermind behind this grand piece of larceny was Kempton Bunton, a retired bus driver who returned the painting in 1965, claiming to have stolen it in protest at the rising cost of the TV license for old age pensioners.
These days, surprisingly little is known of Bunton and his plot, which later took even more twists and turns in the 1970s. All that is likely to change, however, after the release – pandemic permitting – of Roger Michell’s Venice Film Festival entry “The Duke,” starring Jim Broadbent as Bunton and Helen Mirren as his wife Dorothy.
Channelling the spirit of quintessential postwar British comedies as “The Man in the White Suit” and “Passport to Pimlico,” Michell’s film promises laughs with an undertow of light social comment – indeed, given the BBC’s recent decision to scrap free licenses for the over-75s, the issue is still relevant over 50 years later.
Michell sat down to talk with Variety two days prior to the film’s world premiere.
Did you know the story of Kempton Bunton before you started this project?
Not a word of it, no. Not even a memory of it, or a vague trace of a memory. And hardly anybody does know about it – it’s odd that hardly anyone I’ve met has heard of it since making the film.
So how did you find out about it?
Just by reading the script, which Pathé sent to me.
What appealed to you? On the surface it’s a great story, but was there more to it than that?
It’s quite hard to discuss it with people who haven’t seen the film, but if you have seen the film, it’s self-evident what’s attractive about it – it has this particular tone which is rather like an Ealing comedy. It’s got huge exuberance to it. It doesn’t take itself too seriously but it’s not a comedy, if you see what I mean. It’s about a little man speaking truth to power in a wonderfully moving way.
The casting choices seem rather perfect, but were they obvious to you?
I didn’t really want to make the film without Jim. I couldn’t imagine making it without Jim. I took it onboard contingent upon Jim signing to do it, because it’s such a perfect part for him that I can’t imagine the film being made without him, and I didn’t want to make it with kind of a Jim substitute. After that, it was great to then assemble this amazing cast around him, including Helen, who I’d never worked with and who I really loved working with.
You’ve worked with Jim Broadbent a few times. What is it about his particular skillset that appeals to you?
He’s got this sort of wonderful gawky grace about him. He’s very human, very real. You can touch him, you can feel him, like a real person, and yet he’s got this incredible comedic gift as well. He’s got the lot. He’s fantastic.
And what did Helen Mirren bring?
Well, it’s quite a departure for Helen to play this part. She plays a cleaning lady in Newcastle in 1961. She’s quite a long suffering cleaning lady because she has to put up with quite a difficult family – she’s lost a daughter in a bicycling accident, and she finds that very hard to cope with. She’s got one son who’s a sort of petty criminal and another son who’s not really gainfully employed. And then she’s got this hopeless husband who can’t hold a job down and is a terrific enthusiast for various causes, but not a great enthusiast for earning the money to pay the rent.
How faithful is it to the real events of the case, and how much is it your interpretation?
In broad strokes it’s pretty faithful to what happened. We’ve definitely compressed the timescale enormously because the whole thing took something like four years, I think.
Did you have to consult the family or get permission?
Yes we did. One of the executive producers is a member of the family, so we have the family’s blessings.
When did you finish the film? Did you just get it under the wire?
Just. I finished shooting, I think, about three weeks before lockdown, thank God. I mean, lots of films didn’t quite make it and they had two or three days or a week outstanding. That must be absolute agony for the people who put all that effort into making the film. So I was able to continue post in the normal way through lockdown. We edited it in the normal way, and finished it about two weeks ago.
Where did you shoot?
We shot a bit in Leeds and a bit in Bradford, because Newcastle itself is so whizzily modernized now it’s very hard to find much you can turn your camera on. So we used Leeds and Bradford for Newcastle, and then we did three weeks on a set, in London, for the Bunton’s house. And then we did a week shooting the courtroom scenes, which we did in Kingston.
When did you realize the pandemic was going to be a serious part of 2020?
I didn’t realize until everyone else. Middle of March, I guess.
So you didn’t have to race to finish the film?
No, thank God, no. It was still sort of somebody else’s problem. It had kicked off in Italy but it wasn’t something that anyone thought was ever going to become a pandemic. It was just an epidemic.
You mentioned Ealing comedies. Did you go back and look at a few?
Yeah, I did go back and watch a few of them. I mean, some of them are really, really astonishing films. They represent such a special moment in British history, don’t they? The white heat of technology, the threat of robots taking over our lives, the rise of the trade union movement, the emancipation of the working classes. All those historical themes are really inadvertently – or not – clearly expressed in many of those films. They’re a really important part of our film heritage.
Would you call “The Duke” a particularly British film?
I think it’s quintessentially British. It’s a celebration of a British eccentric, which is something we do repeatedly in film. It is a very, very British story, so yes.
In today’s world, how would you define Britishness?
Well, it’s where I was brought up. It’s absolutely in every cell of my body, being British. I’ve never felt at all American. Although I, like everyone else, drink at the fountain of American culture, I’ve never wanted to live in America or make stories about America, although I’ve done a couple. I mean, it’s confusing to be British at the moment, but it’s confusing to be a citizen of the world at the moment. I think it’s particularly confusing because we’ve still got Brexit, which is like this sort of hidden undertone. Everyone’s forgotten about Brexit, but that’s all going to kick off [next], isn’t it? And probably end badly. Probably end with an unpleasant and sort of violent break, I would have thought.
It’s funny you should say you were reluctant to go to America, because you did such a good job with “Changing Lanes.” Was there a particular reason why you didn’t pursue that route?
I had young children. I didn’t want to leave them. So after “Changing Lanes” I didn’t work outside the M25 for about 10 years, I don’t think, because I just wanted to be around. I had a problematic divorce, and I wanted to be with my kids, so I made a sort of virtue of the fact that I wanted to make English films, or do theater in England, or whatever I was doing.
When you look at your films do you see themes emerging?
People tell me that there are themes that emerge but I don’t really look for them. I think that perhaps lots of them are sorts of love stories, or kinds of love stories, between apparently disparate characters. I suppose that’s a theme in my work. They’re quite romantic films, I think.
Is this the second time you’ve been to Venice? Wasn’t “Enduring Love” also there in 2004?
Yes. I remember going to Heathrow with Rhys Ifans and Daniel Craig, on the way to Venice. I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, but someone came up to Dan and said, “Hey, hey, you’re Craig Daniel, aren’t you?” [Laughs] And I remember thinking, “That probably won’t last for that long” – I mean, that sort of vague knowledge of who Daniel Craig is.
How was your memory of that festival?
There was a lot going on. Festivals are quite hard work, aren’t they? You think they’re going to be great fun, but they’re really not. It’s quite hard. You’re always the underdog. You’re always the film that isn’t quite the film that everyone’s talking about, and so you come away feeling almost like you’ve lost a contest or something. The year I was there was the year of that Mike Leigh film about an abortionist [“Vera Drake”]. I remember going for a swim in the hotel pool, and on the shore of the pool Mike Leigh was holding court, surrounded by the world’s press. I remember thinking, “Fuck, that’s clearly not happening to our film this year.” [Laughs] But we had a great time. I can’t complain.
Do you have any idea of what you’re going to be doing next? Have things started going back into production?
Things have started. Things are being shot again, like TV. “Jurassic World: Dominion” is being shot at the moment. I’m being sent scripts that people say they want to make, so I don’t really know. I mean, I’m doing some writing. I’m finishing a script and I’m just setting about trying to decide what to do next. So, yeah, it’s not the most reassuring of times.
So, during lockdown, you really just used the time to finish the film?
Yes. I actually really enjoyed lockdown. I had a really nice time. I saw loads of my kids, and I liked the rhythm of work, because it was very peaceful cycling into London every day and going to this vast, deserted building with only me and my editor in it. It felt really, really good. And all the rest of the post process wasn’t too challenged by social distancing, et cetera. So I enjoyed that. I mean, I wouldn’t have liked to have been unemployed during lockdown. I think I would have found that really upsetting and disturbing, but so far it hasn’t interfered with this film. I just have no idea – and nor does anyone else, I guess – as to how anyone is actually going to end up seeing it.
What would you like people to take away from “The Duke”?
Pleasure. Predominately pleasure. It’s not a complex film. It’s a light-hearted, fun film and I think it should just give people pleasure and make them feel, for a moment, happy. That would make me feel good about it.