In film, intrigue and art theft are typically reserved for suspense thrillers with handsome leads dressed to the nine’s plotting the perfect heist. A stodgy, slightly bumbling low-class thief isn’t the typical type unless the story is true. Based on a radio play story, director Roger Michell’s version is nearly perfect – cast, sets, costumes, acting, and pacing.
Having lived in London for a year, I am fully aware of the government license necessary to have a television. The Duke shares the story of the only art theft ever from London’s National Gallery. It was committed by Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver who protested the governments’ taxing of television (for the BBC). In 1961, he managed to steal Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington – made more perplexing because the thief made his exit through a small bathroom window in the museum. His reason for taking the piece? To draw attention to the unfair government requirement for television licenses. Burton believes pensioners should be exempt from the expense and wants assurances.
Jim Broadbent stars as Bunton, whose wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) works as a cleaning lady in an affluent household. Their youngest son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), does his best to live around his parent, who struggle because of Bunton’s loquaciousness and inability to keep steady employment – having been injured at work and because he is a royal pain in the butt. She hides from her pain and loss, and he campaigns for causes. Broadbent is the perfect choice as the lovable and painfully hopeless cabbie. Together he and Mirren demonstrate lovely chemistry. For her part, Mirren is nearly unrecognizable as the long-suffering wife of the ever-crusading Kempton. The pair is wounded, having lost a teenage daughter in a bike accident, and a dark pall hovers over their modest home.
It is a treasure of a film about a gem of a man who had the wherewithal to fight for change despite everything. Other cast members and characters pale next to the film’s stars, but the ensemble lifts Broadbent up. Courtroom scenes are priceless and entertaining as Burton wittily banters with prosecutors and the judge. And the film itself is gorgeous – stunning costuming and period sets. This was Roger Michell’s final film before his death last September at only 65. COVID delayed its release, so he never got to see it open, but I think he would be and should be proud.
The Duke offers up an entertaining tale of an unlikely underdog with spunk. He is not a dashing hero but rather a determined soldier for right who bumbles through life while his beleaguered wife travels in his wake. There are wonderfully satisfying reveals in The Duke and well worth the time. It’s a culture and a time recreated masterfully by Michell for our pleasure. It earns 4.5 stars from me.