April 2022

Arts & Letters

Maturity breach: ‘The Duke’ and ‘Big Bug’

By Shane Danielsen
While Roger Michell’s final film pairs Jim Broadbent with Helen Mirren in a dignified, grown-up cinema, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returns with a juvenile sci-fi sex-comedy

It never fails to amaze me that the film industry – “the most venal collection of greedy, amoral bastards ever assembled in one place”, as a producer I know recently put it – should comprehensively ignore one of its main demographics. I’m talking about filmgoers over 55, who, as various studies have shown, have the time, the money and the inclination to go to the pictures, but mostly don’t, except to accompany their grandchildren to the latest Pixar or Marvel release, because virtually nothing is being made for them or about them.

Into this desert rides The Duke, a comedy-drama starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. It’s the final film for Roger Michell, the British film and theatre director who died unexpectedly last September, aged 65, and a worthy conclusion to his filmography, which includes Notting Hill, The Mother, Enduring Love and 2013’s small, superb Le Week-end. An alumnus of the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michell was what’s commonly known as a journeyman director: lacking a signature style, but equipped with taste, intelligence and a high degree of craft, and, as such, capable of tackling a wide array of genres and settings. 

Befitting his background, he worked especially well with writers and with actors, and so it is here: the script, by playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, manages to be economical as well as erudite, propelling us swiftly through the action, and both leads – the entire cast, in fact – deliver outstanding performances. The result goes down easy because all concerned make it look so effortless.

Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) is a cab driver, amateur playwright and local activist, a lonely, dogged presence on the street corners of Newcastle. He’s married to Dorothy (Mirren), dour and flinty in the northern manner, who cleans the house of a wealthy local councillor. They have two grown sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny ( Jack Bandeira), and had a daughter, Marion, who died a few years earlier in a cycling accident. 

That incident, and his wife’s stubborn refusal to mourn it (“Grief is private!” she snaps), have pushed Kempton further into his Causes – in particular, his opposition to the British television licence, which he believes should be free for pensioners and returned servicemen. His attempt to defend this point, however, lands him a 15-day stint in Durham prison, from which he emerges chastened but undeterred. To his sons, he’s a steadfast, even heroic figure. To his exasperated and rather more pragmatic wife, he’s a fool.

Soon after his release, Kempton becomes further incensed by the British government’s decision to spend £40,000 of taxpayers’ money to acquire for the National Gallery Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (or, as he describes it, “a half-baked portrait by some Spanish drunk of a duke who was a bastard”). Shortly thereafter, the painting is stolen, the police are appealing for leads, and Kempton is asking Jackie to fashion a false back for the wardrobe in their spare bedroom, in order to hide the canvas while he sets about composing a ransom note. The money, Kempton says, will pay for thousands of TV licences, right across the country.

Broadbent has a Dickensian quality that’s well deployed here – like Bleak House’s Mrs Jellyby, driving her poor husband to despair, Kempton is so eager to help “mankind” that he neglects his own family – and a fragile, wounded dignity that attracts our sympathy even as his single-mindedness infuriates us. Mirren, meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable as Dorothy – sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued, her entire frame clenched with shame or fury. Michell stages many of their scenes together in single-shot tableaux, which affords us the luxury – as on stage – of watching these actors work off each other in real time, and which, given their calibre, feels a little like being Centre Court at Wimbledon. 

Michell frequently blocks the scenes so that characters are framed in doorways or windows, or positioned in adjacent rooms, all suggesting the fragmentation of this once-close family. And Bean and Coleman’s script has a few neat tricks of its own: first, a third-act revelation, hinted at earlier via some adroit editing, and then a clever, understated upending of the film’s central premise. Only at the very end do we understand precisely which picture, in this story, is most important, and must be restored to its rightful place. 

Generous and tender, this feels at times a little like an Ealing comedy, pitting a principled underdog against a corrupt or uncaring Establishment. Indeed, no small part of the pleasure here resides in Michell’s witty juxtaposition of ’60s heist-film tropes – a jazzy, finger-snappin’ score; split-screen framing à la The Thomas Crown Affair or Charade – with the grimmer details of working-class northern England circa 1961, all gas meters and cloth caps, and living rooms dressed in 50 shades of brown. 

But in the courtroom scenes of its final act, as Broadbent delivers a surprisingly moving explication of his character’s beliefs – his sustaining faith that people are stronger together than alone – the film suddenly shifts gear and recalls something else: the gentle, unforced humanism of Powell and Pressburger classics such as A Canterbury Tale and A Matter of Life and Death. These are some of the greatest British movies ever made, and if The Duke doesn’t quite reach their heights, it also doesn’t suffer unduly from the comparison. Amid a torrent of dumbed-down spectacle, it asserts a tradition hounded almost into extinction: the smart, funny, purely enjoyable commercial movie, made with care and skill by grown-ups for other grown-ups to enjoy. 

While Jane Campion hoovers up awards for The Power of the Dog, let’s pause a moment to consider another famous ’90s filmmaker, long absent from the fray, who’s just made their streaming debut: France’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet. 

If that name isn’t immediately familiar, perhaps another – Amélie – might ring a few cloches. An international hit, it made Jeunet, for a moment, just about the most famous French filmmaker in the world. Alas, the moment soon passed. He followed it three years later with a capital-P prestige film, the World War One drama A Very Long Engagement (2004), adapted from Sébastien Japrisot’s bestselling novel of the same name, once again starring Audrey Tautou, and shot in an almost oppressively mellow light, more marmalade than honeyed. It didn’t exactly bomb, but it definitely underperformed, finding neither the critical favour Jeunet craved nor the commercial success he expected. Thereafter, his output has been sporadic and largely unnoticed. (Ever heard of Micmacs? The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet? No? Quelle surprise.)

Now comes Big Bug, his eighth feature, made for the very Netflix he once dismissed as “a last resort”. It’s 2050. Technology has advanced in ways both convenient (domestic robots prepare meals and perform all household chores) and distressing (books are relics, homes are sterile fortresses). The effect is predictably numbing: so in thrall to their machines are these pampered, well-fed citizens, that they’ve forgotten how to do anything for themselves. It’s a weakness that almost proves fatal when the robots, under the direction of their central intelligence Yonyx, decide to stage a revolution. 

Shot during lockdown last year, the film is confined to a single location: the suburban house of Alice and her teenage son Léo. She’s invited fifty-something Max to come over – presumably to allow him to seduce her – but as the emergency unfolds, they’re joined by some unexpected visitors: her ex-husband and his bimbo girlfriend, an elderly neighbour and her robot sex slave. All of whom, despite the threat of imminent extinction, appear to be extremely, improbably horny.

That’s right, it’s an apocalyptic sci-fi sex-comedy. It’s possible to imagine a version of this – a transposition of the conventions of Gallic bedroom farce – that might work. Just. But the script, by Jeunet and his regular co-writer Guillaume Laurant, feels both misconceived and badly underdeveloped. We never understand the terms of this brave new world: what the Yonyx are or how they came into being (I assumed for the first half-hour they were aliens), or what the wider world looks like, or even how Max knows Alice. Instead, we’re stuck on a set that looks like a TikTok star’s take on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with eight shrill caricatures and a few inexplicably loyal household robots, from a dollar-shop Wall-E to a talking head whose design, for no good reason, seems modelled on the Lex Luthor/Brainiac hybrid from Alan Moore’s classic Superman story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” 

But there’s a bigger problem here, and it’s one that can be encapsulated in two words: French comedy. Admirably adult in matters of the heart, the culture often succumbs to its most juvenile tendencies when trying for a laugh – a dichotomy summed up best in an old episode of The Goodies, when Graeme notes ruefully that they lost the top prize at the Montreux Television Festival to the French entry, Monsieur Wee-Wee Goes Poo-Poo. And as his previous films have shown, Jeunet has a fondness for whimsy, but no discernible sense of humour, so it’s not entirely surprising that none of these jokes land. The first scene sets the tone, as a household robot delivers a running commentary on the human characters’ dialogue via onscreen metrics (“Pretension level: 87 per cent”,“Erection: 100 per cent”), which is about as dismal a running gag as I’ve ever seen.

Big Bug doesn’t get any funnier than that, but it does get a whole lot louder. People wail and shout and weep, to no effect. (None of the cast are good.) Jeunet has always been a maximalist, more-is-more filmmaker, and he crams his frames with fussy production design and looming close-ups, all shot with his trademark wide-angle lenses. But there’s a fundamental bitterness here that seeps into the satire; this techno-dystopia is even less fun to watch than it might be to inhabit. Worse, there’s a contradiction nestled at the film’s heart, since, like most filmmakers looking to tell you how wicked technology is, he’s unable to resist loading his film with CGI – so much so, that the story’s human element is made all but redundant. By the time one of the Yonyx shows up, laying waste to the house like a Terminator, you may be forgiven for thinking, Good. Let the toasters win.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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