In ‘The Duke,’ Jim Broadbent puts an eccentric at the center

LONDON — In Room 45 of the National Gallery here, Jim Broadbent examined Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington. It was not his first encounter with painting. But, “I’ve never seen him next to Napoleon before,” he said, nodding at Vernet’s study of the French emperor hanging nearby.

Broadbent’s latest film, “The Duke,” is based on the actual theft of the portrait in 1961, and hits theaters Friday. The actor, 72, plays Kempton Bunton, who held the painting ransom to protest what he saw as unfair taxes on ordinary people.

If any of the hordes of tourists visiting the museum over the Easter holidays knew she was standing just yards from one of Britain’s great actors, they didn’t say so. For many youngsters, Broadbent is Professor Slughorn, the affable potions master of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Their parents may have seen him play Harold Zidler, the mustachioed owner of the Moulin Rouge, or the father of Bridget Jones.

The story of Bunton, a mischievous taxi driver, failed playwright and possible cat burglar from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, gave Broadbent another eccentric persona. “You can’t sell it as a work of fiction,” Broadbent said earlier, in the gallery restaurant. “Stealing a photo from the National Gallery? It’s too far fetched. »

On the 50th anniversary of the heist, Bunton’s grandson Christopher, 45, came up with the idea to tell his family’s story. Inspired after reading his grandfather’s plays, he wrote a script, he said in a recent video interview, and emailed 20 UK production companies. He received six responses, including one from producer Nicky Bentham. Richard Bean and Clive Coleman revamped the script and Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) signed on to direct, followed by Broadbent as lead.

“I don’t remember reading a script like this,” Broadbent said, remarking on its dated quality. With a whimsical sense of humor softening its satirical bite, it reminded him of films produced by London’s Ealing Studios in the 1950s, like ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ or ‘The Ladykillers’. When Bunton is tried in court, he addresses the jury as if he were the audience at a stand-up show.

Broadbent has honed his own comedic instincts since childhood. He grew up in Lincolnshire to artistic parents and attended a Quaker school, where he posed as his teachers with studied precision, realizing that if he succeeded people would really laugh. “I think that’s what got me into playing characters,” he said. The impressions weren’t just about mimicry, “It was actually about observing and nailing essential features.”

His alert blue eyes and awkward 6ft 1in frame lend themselves well to physical comedy, although his looks, he said, facilitated a versatile career. “I was never going to be the normal kind of handsome, handsome guy,” he said. “From the start, as I was not easy to cast in anything in particular, I knew I had to cast my net very wide.”

When he graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art School of Drama in 1972, he wrote to 100 theater companies seeking employment. It quickly became a staple of the London repertoire scene.

When filmmaker and director Mike Leigh met Broadbent for drinks in 1974, he thought the actor was “very, very cautious,” Leigh said in a recent phone interview. Leigh is known for his improvisational style of work, which Broadbent “wasn’t sure he could do,” Leigh said.

But the director saw emotional intelligence and cast Broadbent as a “very sweet, northern, working-class guy” in “Ecstasy,” at the Hampstead Theatre. Impressed by Broadbent’s rare sensibility and anticipating his range, Leigh cast him again in his next production, “Goose-Pimples”, where the actor “played the exact opposite, a really nasty fascist character”. In total, the pair worked together seven times.

In the 1980s, Broadbent was rarely offstage – except when he was on television. Helen Mirren, who plays Dorothy, Bunton’s wife in “The Duke,” said in an email that it was impossible to remember when she first encountered her co-star’s work, “because he’s been part of our theater and screen landscape for so long, but it was probably in ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Blackadder’, two iconic comedy TV programs in Britain.

Soon, Broadbent was craving new challenges and a change of pace. “I felt very comfortable on stage, and I hadn’t felt that on the set bits that I was doing, and I was so embarrassed in front of a lens put in your nose,” he said. , and so it shifted more towards movies.

Another collaboration with Leigh, the feature film “Topsy-Turvy”, won him a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1999 and was a success in the United States. “That was the start of it: you get award-winning,” Broadbent said. The awards led to working with Hollywood directors like Baz Luhrmann and Martin Scorsese.

“There’s a whole bunch of them at that time, like ‘Moulin Rouge!’ – it’s completely out of my comfort zone, I definitely wouldn’t have cast myself in this role at all,” Broadbent said, “you know, singing and dancing. But he won a BAFTA for his performance. And then in 2002 he won an Oscar for playing literary critic John Bayley in ‘Iris’, a role “I tried to persuade Richard Eyre that I was no good,” Broadbent said. Bayley, he thought, was “kind of a cerebral academic, which isn’t me at all.”

This Hollywood period gave Broadbent the freedom to be more selective when choosing his later projects. He described himself as “very famous” and politely declined in 2002 to be made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an honor bestowed by the Queen. In person, he’s modest and self-effacing – not one to draw attention to himself.

When he’s not performing in a job he enjoys, Broadbent turns to sculpting life-size puppets out of wood to “find my creative outlet,” he said. “It’s another way to invent characters”, and the sculptures have a gnarled quality with haunted expressions.

Part of the appeal of “The Duke” came from being directed by Michell again (the pair worked together on the 2013 film “The Weekend”). Bunton’s story turned out to be Michell’s final draft, and he died in September last year. “Roger had it all,” Broadbent said. “He was very sensitive to people, their vulnerabilities and their strengths.”

Broadbent was also drawn to Bunton’s complexity. “He was a failed playwright, an activist, pretty unemployable for an extended period of time,” Broadbent said. According to Christopher Bunton, the actor made his grandfather “slightly more likeable” than he was in real life.

Although Broadbent’s parents were conscientious objectors to World War II, the actor said he personally preferred to “keep a low profile.” He described himself as “resisting authority” but said he “never wanted, in particular, that resistance to define who I am”. Bunton, on the other hand, campaigned for what he believed in, such as an exemption for pensioners from the annual British television license fee. “He was ready to stand up, make his presence felt and complain in a way that I never have,” the actor said.

Broadbent, Leigh said, “is an accomplished actor. He does not play himself.

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