British legend Dame Helen Mirren reflects on her role in The Duke

Caption; Dame Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton) and Jim Broadbent (Kempton Bunton) © Pathe UK
Caption; Dame Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton) and Jim Broadbent (Kempton Bunton) © Pathe UK

Caption; Dame Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton) and Jim Broadbent (Kempton Bunton) © Pathe UK

Screening at cinemas now, The Duke is the true story of Kempton Bunton, a 60-year old taxi driver, who stole Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. It was the first (and remains the only) theft in the Gallery’s history. 

The movie is led by two British greats, Jim Broadbent and Dame Helen Mirren and directed by the late Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Tea
with the Dames
). This is the first film to tell this extraordinary true story.

Dame Helen Mirren is perhaps best known for playing Queen Elizabeth II, a role that gave her an Oscar for the film The Queen.

When it came to portraying cleaning lady Dorothy Bunton in The Duke, she explains: “This woman “was in my DNA, I understood her.” Mirren says of the moment when she read the screenplay. 

“When I was growing up in a working-class family in London, I had a lot of aunts, as my mother was the 13th out of 14 children. My mother also left school at the age of 14 or 15 to work. I felt Dorothy was somewhere in my DNA, I felt I understood her, I liked her and wanted to play her.”

Playing the wife of the charismatic Kempton Bunton, who stands trial in The Duke for the theft of a priceless painting, Dorothy Bunton may be described as ‘long-suffering.’ But Mirren points out that Dorothy is more than a match for the idiosyncratic Kempton, played by Jim Broadbent.

“She’s a working-class woman – or a woman who’s always worked,” Mirren explains. “She’s of the era and generation where women worked to keep the family going, and her husband Kempton is not very good at earning money, he’s not a good provider as they say. 

“So, Dorothy has to be the provider for the family and hold them together, which is what she’s always done. Women have taken that role throughout history.”

The actress points out that Dorothy is a Queen in her own home, even if it’s a terraced house in Newcastle, not Buckingham Palace. She rules over the rest of the family, whether it’s Kempton or her sons Jackie and Kenny, played in the film by Fionn Whitehead and Jack Bandeira.

“Human beings are human beings whether they’re wearing crowns or working scrubbing the floor. Inside is the same humanity of love, despair, hope, insecurity, or ambition,” she says. 

“I thought Dorothy is very dignified and very powerful within that little house. That is her world, and she is in control of that. She has her own power and she wields it. You understand that in that house people do what Dorothy, not Kempton, tells them to do.”

Much is known of Kempton Bunton because of his trial for the alleged theft. But Mirren says only one photograph existed of his wife.

“Rather than try and investigate what Dorothy was like, I thought I would find a woman that I could base it on who came from a similar background,” she explains.

“I found a photograph of a woman living in the north of England, during the same era, she was walking down one of the back alleys that ran between two rows of terraced houses. I based the character on this woman, she had this look of such strength and determination. There was an incredible toughness about this woman.” 

Nevertheless, when the audience meets Dorothy, Mirren agrees that there’s a weariness to her.

“Kempton and Dorothy have had a major tragedy in the family. They deal with it in different ways and Dorothy can’t get through this loss. On top of that she’s dealing with her husband who is very intelligent, very creative, very loving and fun, but the difficult side is, there’s not enough money to keep the family going. So, she’s battling to keep them clean and tidy and fed, and she’s exhausted by that battle.” 

Much of The Duke’s comedy emanates from the exchanges between Mirren and Broadbent’s characters, but the actress adds there’s something far deeper to the arc of the couple’s relationship.

“Part of the delight of the film is to watch the redemption of that marriage and realise they’re not going to break apart, they’re going to come closer together,” she argues.

Despite their illustrious careers, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent hadn’t acted a scene together until director Roger Michell cast them in this film. 

They have an easy chemistry on screen, but she warns that it’s never a certain thing.

“You have to pray that the chemistry, this magic thing, is going to work” she says.

“You meet someone a week before shooting and you have to find yourself on a level or find a familiarity with each other that conveys a sense that these people have been together for decades. But with Jim, it was so easy. 

“I think it helps that I knew Jim was the right person to play Kempton. No one could have done it better than Jim and I think it’s one of his great performances. It’s what makes the film work; when you are part of that it’s easier to slot yourself in, because you’re coming from a place of love and admiration.”

Mirren was in her teens in 1961 when the film begins and says she doesn’t remember the real-life case of the missing Goya painting, but that she does remember the period vividly.

“Roger Michell used real film of London during the era and I recognised that London, I remember it very well. I didn’t grow up in the North of England and the north was considerably poorer than the south at the time, so visually the world of The Duke was a different world to the one I grew up in, but the clothes and the social attitudes were very familiar to me. 

“You know, as a girl if you showed a bra strap people would shout at you in the street. I was so thrilled when women became more liberated – physically, emotionally, professionally. For me that was great.”

However, Mirren admits that unlike Kempton Bunton and his passionate protests for free TV licences for the elderly, she would be more likely to stay at home than demonstrate in the street.

“I am more like my character than Kempton, I talk a good game but fundamentally I’m a bit of a coward, “she confesses. 

“I don’t think I could stand up on a street corner and speak up for what’s right, I would probably give him some money to encourage him but not actually stand up there myself. I was a feminist when I was young because I just believed in equality. As far as I could see, women were equal to men on every level. It confused and annoyed me, but I never went on feminist marches, and now I regret it. 

“You do need to have your voice heard, you do need to stand up and speak out and I wasn’t that sort of person, and I criticise myself for that. It’s what I love the young for, they stand up and make their voices heard, and they teach us older people about change.” 

The Duke is playing in cinemas now.