On 4 September 2020, Roger Michell and Jim Broadbent came to Venice to unveil a British film called The Duke. The forecast was stormy and the festival was in peril, staged in defiance of a global pandemic, with tubs of hand sanitiser on the red carpet and thermal cameras at the doors. The premiere shouldn’t have worked and yet somehow it did. Afterwards, Broadbent recalls, he and the director unhooked their masks and breathed a sigh of relief. “I remember turning to Roger and saying: ‘Oh, I am glad that we came.’”
I was in Venice that day; I was glad they came, too. The premiere was a hit and The Duke was a hoot, a boisterous true-crime caper, pungently set in early 60s Newcastle and spotlighting the theft of a famous oil painting. Michell’s timing was impeccable. He delivered the perfect picture for the perfect moment, a tonic for flagging spirits. For a few hours at least, The Duke felt like a reaffirmation of core values, a tale of the past that pointed to a brighter tomorrow. Indirectly, it assured us that everything was OK. But 18 months later, the world is still waiting to see it.
Onscreen, The Duke plays out as a comedy. Offscreen, however, the film is a tragedy – at once a casualty of the pandemic and a posthumous classic. Covid scuppered its scheduled release. Michell died suddenly in September last year. The film’s cast and crew are still reeling, in shock.
I speak to Nicky Bentham, The Duke’s producer. She explains that she now sees her role as that of the director’s spokesperson. She wants to honour his intentions and celebrate his legacy. But she’s still processing the loss; can’t quite believe that he’s gone. She had hoped the film would be the first of many collaborations with Michell. Instead, it turned out to be the last. “I get quite emotional talking about it,” she says. “This is like therapy for me.”
Perhaps fittingly, The Duke spins the tale of a dead man’s masterpiece, whisked from under our noses and securely hidden from view. It stars Broadbent as the true-life Kempton Bunton, a soapbox revolutionary and wannabe playwright who stashed a stolen Goya in his back bedroom as part of a crackpot scheme to secure free TV licences for the nation’s pensioners. Along the way, Michell juggles knockabout farce with kitchen-sink social realism; domestic spats with soaring rhetoric. Ostensibly, The Duke is a salute to the rackety British underdog – a comic tradition that extends back through Tony Hancock, Lucky Jim and The Lavender Hill Mob. But it is also, inadvertently, a film about its creator. It shows us what moved him, what drove him. His presence back-shadows what we see in the frame.
“This is his last film,” says Helen Mirren, who co-stars as Dorothy Bunton, Kempton’s pinched, harried wife. “And it’s a wonderful film to be his last because it carries within it all his strengths as a film-maker. His brilliant technique. His warmth as a person. His wonderful understanding of life and humanity. And we all recognised that as we were making it. We all knew that we were in Roger’s film.”
It’s curious, in hindsight, to realise that there was ever anything so instantly recognisable as a Roger Michell production. Most successful directors like to announce their presence and perfect a signature style. Michell, though, was the quiet man of British cinema, a sort of expert butler in the wings. In the course of an eclectic 40-year career, he glided from the stage to TV to feature film-making and back again. He directed big, splashy Britpics (1999’s Notting Hill) and small, knotty human dramas (Venus, The Mother). He shot Hollywood pictures (Changing Lanes, Hyde Park on Hudson) and oversaw intimate documentaries (the acclaimed Nothing Like a Dame and the forthcoming Elizabeth, completed just before his death). He created fine, lasting work but he flew under the radar.
Bentham would largely go along with that. Actually, she says, that’s what she loved about the man: the fact that he could turn his hand to anything and find a home in any setting. “Probably he flew under the radar because he wasn’t paying attention to the radar. He was paying attention to the story, the people, the script.” She sighs. “If he were more guided by trends – by public opinion or branding – he might have been seen as a landmark director of a certain genre. But that wasn’t him. He was never guided by external forces.”
It’s clear he was loved. His cast and crew all adored him. Broadbent first worked with Michell on the 2013 film Le Week-End, in which he played an anguished old academic rattling around Paris. After that the pair became friends. They were north London neighbours. Michell was imaginative, generous, entirely without ego. “He was my favourite director,” Broadbent says. “He allowed everyone to be the best possible version of themselves.”
The Duke’s co-writers, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, paint a similar picture. They recall that the project was initially offered to several other directors, who either weren’t interested or weren’t available. “The key thing that Roger brought was a kind of calm,” Bean says. “He made us all confident that the film was going to get made. There was no anxiety, or histrionics, or drama. The sense was just: ‘Oh, here’s the guy who knows what he’s doing.’ And all of a sudden everyone’s happy.”
“Yes, he was a calming presence,” says Coleman. “I think that’s probably why actors loved him. Whatever neuroses actors suffer from, he was somehow the great antidote.”
Finally, I hear from Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays a supporting role in The Duke. Martin says that she first met the director on a play, Honour, at the National theatre, and “fell in love with him straight away”. The pair were married between 2002 and 2020 and had two daughters together, Maggie and Nancy.
“Roger only made films and plays about human interaction,” she explains. “That seems obvious. Aren’t all films and plays about human interaction? But no, they aren’t. They get swamped by bells and whistles. The relationships get lost.” In Michell’s work, she feels, the human element was always front and centre.
“I suppose I had a particularly intimate experience of working with Roger,” Martin says. “He thought I mucked about far too much. ‘Put the cheese down, dear!’ he’d shout across the set as I was lobbing about a wheel of cheddar, just because. He’d sit in the corner with a little handheld monitor, like a monk. Never being demonstrative. Just doing the work, serving the script.”
The Duke wrapped production just before the first lockdown. It premiered to glowing reviews at Venice and Telluride and was set for release in autumn 2020. Cameron McCracken, managing director of Pathé UK, says that the plan was to capitalise on the festival buzz and introduce it into the all-important awards corridor, riding the wave through the Baftas to a possible finish at the Oscars. But Covid rates kept spiking and the film’s success depended on an older audience showing up. The release was delayed a full year, to September 2021, before being pushed back yet again in response to Omicron. It has been a wretched situation, an ongoing exercise in crisis management. But McCracken doesn’t see how it could have been handled differently. Pathe, he points out, is a small independent outfit. It develops, produces and finances perhaps three or four films every year. So the stakes are high; every release is a gamble. He says: “If we get it wrong, I’ve destroyed the company.”
Next Friday, two years after it went before the cameras, Michell’s film comes limping across the finish line. McCracken is pleased to have at last seen it through, but it is a bittersweet coda; hardly the triumph he had envisaged. “This was supposed to be a great time,” he says. “It was going to mark the moment a modest, understated, brilliant director suddenly came into his own. I looked at The Duke as a coronation.”
Instead, it’s a funeral, which feels rubbish and wrong. McCracken is sad that the delayed release appears to have largely shut the film out of the awards conversation. Mostly, he’s upset that Michell never had the chance to watch this quintessentially British movie on home soil. “The fact that he was denied that is horrible,” he says.
Ultimately, though, it’s the work that remains. One winter evening I revisit The Duke in more humdrum surroundings (in the living room, on a laptop), 18 months after its Venice premiere. There, on screen, as if by magic, is Broadbent’s glorious performance as loudmouthed Bunton, a socialist upstart who puts his faith “not in God but in people”. He is berating shopfloor managers in Newcastle. He is telling the Old Bailey jury: “I’m you and you’re me.” That we are stronger together; that we build a better world, too. The film, I am relieved to note, is just as good as it ever was. But its circumstances have changed and those ripples are still being felt. What was conceived as a rousing class-war comedy now looks slightly different. It is shop-damaged and tragedy-struck a victim of human frailty; perhaps a reflection of it, too.
“The film doesn’t change,” says McCracken. “What’s changed is the emphasis of the message and how that is read by the public. Because when we started shooting, the idea that Kempton speaks to in the film – that a society is only as strong as its weakest link – might have seemed a bit abstract. We couldn’t know that we were moving into two years of Covid, death and insecurity, where our society would be judged on a daily basis by how well it protects its oldest and most vulnerable. So that journey’s been fascinating. It somehow makes the film feel more trenchant.”
Michell died on 22 September 2021 at his London home. He was 65. The cause of death was never made public, but his family has now confirmed that he died of a heart attack. He is survived by four children (including Harry and Rosanna by his first wife, the actor turned lawyer Kate Buffery) and 15 feature films, heaps of stage productions, buckets of TV dramas. He leaves us The Duke, which is a particularly lovely parting shot.
Coleman says he was devastated when Bentham called him with the news. Then he attended the funeral and came away feeling better. “It was an absolutely extraordinary experience,” he says. “I almost made notes and gave them to my family. The funeral was held in a church in Hampstead and there must have been 350 people there, everyone he’d ever come into contact with; the place was rammed to the rafters. And as well as being sad, it was also fantastically uplifting and joyous. I think that Roger was a truly joyous man, actually. That’s why The Duke is a great testament to his personality. But in a strange way, I think that the funeral was, too.”
It is a drizzly afternoon in mid-February and Jim Broadbent has been speaking to reporters all day. The journey that began alongside Michell on the Venice red carpet wraps up here, in a London hotel, staring down the barrel of a laptop and doggedly moving from one interview to the next. The actor is dry-mouthed and exhausted; he says that he has never talked quite so much in his life. Nonetheless he’s determined to do right by the film.
“It’s an emotional day for me,” he says. “It’s not enjoyable, but it’s something I want to do. Because this is the last chance to celebrate what a brilliant director Roger was, and what a wonderful person he was. That makes me want to promote the film more than I would normally want to promote a film. I want to put it out there and remember what we did. I want to tell people about it. To tell them about him.”