ALL REVIEWS WRITTEN BY GREG KING
LAST UPDATED NOVEMBER 14 2021
In 1961, Kempton Bunton (played here by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent) a 60 year old taxi driver, stole a Goya painting from the National Gallery of London. Incensed that the British government had spent £140 000 on purchasing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, Kempton stole the painting. He sent ransom notes saying that he would return the painting if the government promised to invest more money and resources for the care of the elderly. Kempton was driven by his belief that the government’s television license payment was wrong – he refused to watch the BBC – and that the elderly and war veterans deserved to have their television for free. Hard as it is to believe, it wasn’t until 2000 that the government finally relaxed the compulsory license requirements. When Kempton returned the painting to the gallery he was arrested and put on trial for grand larceny. He used the trial to put forward his anti-tv tax arguments and he charmed the jury. This is something of a feel good film, but it really only comes alive during the trial sequences as Kempton charms and beguiles the court with his humour and genial nature and colourful stories.
The Duke is based on a true story and has been written by award winning playwright Richard Bean and former lawyer Clive Coleman (who collaborated on plays such as Great Britain, Young Marx, etc), although one suspects that the pair have taken some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. The film also touches on some universal themes such as class, social justice, inequality, etc. Broadbent is superb here with a larger than life presence as the eccentric Kempton, and he makes him a sympathetic character. The normally glamourous and stylish Helen Mirren goes for a more dowdy look here as Kempton’s long suffering wife Dorothy, with her unflattering plain cardigans and grey dress sense, her grey hair, plain glasses and slouched posture. The pair of veterans develop a nice odd couple dynamic. Matthew Goode registers strongly as Jeremy Hutchinson, Kempton’s lawyer, and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk, etc) brings energy to his role as Bunton’s son Jackie.
Sadly this was also the final film directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill, etc) before his death, but he maintains a lively enough pace throughout that recalls the classic comedies from the Ealing Studios. The film boasts some superb production values that capture the period.
Michael Caine is again in grumpy old man mode here as Harris Shaw, a reclusive author once regarded as a lion of American literature. But is has been decades since his seminal novel Atomic Autumn established the controversial writer’s reputation, and he hasn’t published anything since. That changes when he is approached by Lucy Stanbridge (Aubrey Plaza) who has inherited her father’s publishing business. But a lack of successful titles has led to the business failing and now a rival (Scott Speedman) is offering to purchase the company. Hoping to find a potential bestseller amongst her company’s list of authors to try and stave off the inevitable she discovers that Shaw’s contract calls for one more novel. He rebuffs her approach in crude fashion and calls her “a snarky dilettante.” But then he relents and offers up his manuscript The Future Is X-Rated. He reluctantly comes out of retirement to fulfill his contractual obligation and accompany Lucy on a book signing tour to promote the novel, but rather than read from the book his rebellious attitude towards literature and the publishing business itself becomes something of a hit on social media. The prickly relationship between the pair though begins to soften as they learn more about each other and their painful past experiences. Best Sellers has been written by actor turned writer Anthony Grieco, and it is fairly predictable stuff, but its observations about the literary world and how social media can turn anybody into an instant celebrity seem a tad superficial. This marks the feature film directorial debut for Canadian actor turned filmmaker Lina Rossler, and her handling of the material is pretty straightforward without any great stylistic flourishes. It’s the prickly chemistry between the two stars that keeps this middling comedy drama moving along. Caine is as usual good and brings charm, warmth, and a bit of a sly twinkle even, as the curmudgeonly alcoholic old writer, while Plaza has plenty of charm and holds her own against Caine.
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