Dame Helen Mirren’s latest film The Duke tells 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 to this day remains the only theft in the gallery’s history.
Mirren portrays Dorothy Bunton, the wife of the charismatic Kempton, played by Jim Broadbent, who stood trial for the theft of the priceless Goya painting. But Mirren points out that Dorothy is more than a match for the idiosyncratic Kempton.
“She’s a working-class woman or a woman who’s always worked,” Mirren explained.
“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.”
Although Dame Mirren’s most iconic role is playing Queen Elizabeth II, a role that earned her an Oscar for the film The Queen, when it came to portraying cleaning lady Dorothy, she explained that she “understood her” upon reading the screenplay and that “Dorothy was somewhere in my DNA.”
“When I was growing up in a working-class family in London, I had a lot of aunts, as my mother was the thirteenth out of fourteen children. My mother also left school at the age of fourteen or fifteen to work. I liked her and wanted to play her,” she said.
Much like Mirren’s royal role in the Queen, the actress pointed out that Dorothy is a Queen in her own right as 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 said.
“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 he own power and she wields it. You understand that in that house people do what Dorothy tells them to do, not Kempton.”
Despite their long running and high profile careers, Mirren and Broadbent have never appeared on screen together until The Duke. The pair have an easy chemistry throughout the film but Mirren stressed that is not always the case but admits that “with Jim, it was so easy.”
“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.
“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 and when you’re part of that it’s easier to slot yourself in, because you’re coming from a place of love and admiration.”
Dame Helen Mirren was born in London, England in 1945 and is the only person to achieve the so-called ‘Triple Crown’ of acting in both the USA and the UK. She’s won both an Oscar and a BAFTA for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s The Queen, plus a Tony and a Laurence Olivier Award for Peter Morgan’s 2013 play The Audience, and multiple BAFTA and Emmy Awards for her role as DCI Jane Tennison in TV’s Prime Suspect.
Her other film roles include The Madness of King George, Gosford Park, Calendar Girls, Woman in Gold and The Leisure Seekers and Collateral Beauty. She is next set to appear as Israeli PM Golda Meir in the biopic Golda.