Synopsis – In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60 year old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
My Take – Following a brief glance at its synopsis, I fully went into this one expecting a simple heist flick led by two excellent veterans Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, but what I didn’t expect was to witness a gentle British comedy drama that left me enthralled, charmed and highly entertained by its lighthearted screenplay.
Unsurprising, considering the film is helmed by British film-maker Roger Michell, who died last September, and is well known for his notable works like Notting Hill (1999), Changing Lanes (2002), Morning Glory (2010), Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), and My Cousin Rachel (2017). Here, working with a script by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, late director Michell tells an unashamedly true old-fashioned underdog tale of a man’s principled stand against the bureaucracy.
Whilst the issues presented in the film are serious and mostly sad, it wins you over by examining the attributes with such a lightness that it ends up producing a far more profound reaction. And since history itself is an example, it is safe to say that watching ordinary people do extraordinary things has always been completely enjoyable.
This is a wonderful little film that acts as a perfect alternative to the current effects-driven vehicles dominating the market (not that I am exactly complaining). The kind of film that gives the feel-good sub-genre a good reputation.
Set in 1961, Newcastle, England, the story follows Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a 60-year-old taxi driver and dreamer who has had a long list of jobs, all the while as he continues to indulge in his passion for writing plays and waging an on-going protest Britain’s BBC television tax especially for seniors.
But while the self-educated and endlessly optimistic Kempton seems himself as a staunch defender of the poor, particularly veterans, widows and pensioners, his perpetually-worried, practical wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) is left with picking up the financial slack by cleaning house for the well-off Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), the wife of an local official, who admires her hard-working housekeeper and her idealistic husband.
However, their lives change forever when he and his loyal younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) watch a new story about how the British government recently paid £140,000 to reclaim a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington from the United States, as a symbol of national pride and patriotism. While Kempton gets worked up about how such as an amount could have instead helped impoverished citizens, Dorothy is convinced otherwise, demanding to lead an uninvolved quiet life.
To find a solution, Kempton makes a deal with Dorothy about letting him take a two-day trip to London to try to speak to Parliament about his TV campaign, and if he fails, he will give up his community activism, his play writing and just stick to a steady job. Though, she agrees, unknown to her, while in London, Kempton gets himself into far more activity. And when he is returns, the news is full of talk about the theft of the painting, which is now hiding in their wardrobe, and being held for ransom.
Running for just 96 minutes, the film moves along briskly and gives us enough time to get to know the characters, and explore the quirks of the oddball story.
An utterly delightful and spirited character-based comedy that brilliantly deals with serious issues such as grief, marital problems and social injustice without ever losing its light and inviting tone. The screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is witty, whimsical and brimming over with a uniquely British charm.
The fact that this is based on a real person makes the film all the more charming and heart-warming, even when it takes some liberties with the true story, like the half-baked inclusion of the villainous Pammy (Charlotte Spencer), the opportunist girlfriend Kempton’s older son, Kenny (Jack Bandeira). The film is also partly shot in the style of 1961 films, with split screen shots and a bouncy jazz score that gives it an added charm.
Fittingly, the film’s final act, in which Kempton offers his defense in court, is quite literally crowd-pleasing, as his words are gentle and jocular but fiercely rousing, and while the court establishment figures harrumph, the gallery cheers and hollers. His barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode), who was married to actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft in real life, recognizes Kempton’s reasons, even if they don’t align with the law in the strictest sense. All the while, the court clerk and public in attendance cannot help but laugh along with Kempton’s blue-collar humor and earthy wit, yet they also feel affected by his familiar and relatable motivations.
Though it feels like the film shoehorned some surprises in the final act, in order to make the whole set up more plausible, however the last minute treatment feels a bit awkward. Still, it is a minor flaw in an otherwise warm, amusing, unlikely true story tale.
Without a doubt the biggest delight of this hilarious tale is Jim Broadbent. Broadbent is terrific in the lead, investing his bumbling antihero with a winning blend of fearlessness and foolishness even as the film tips from social satire into theatrical silliness. He is closely followed by Helen Mirren and their marvelous bantering, battling scenes are among the film’s best. As his very much long-suffering wife Mirren is given the more dramatic material to handle, which she does (like always) with aplomb.
In supporting roles, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode and Anna Maxwell Martin give pitch-perfect performances. While in smaller roles, Jack Bandeira, Aimée Kelly, Charlotte Spencer, Joshua McGuire, John Heffernan, Andrew Havill and James Wilby are also good. On the whole, ‘The Duke’ is a warm and witty comedy drama that’s heartwarming, charming and extremely enjoyable.
Directed – Roger Michell
Rated – R
Run Time – 96 minutes