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This is, sadly, the final movie directed by Roger Michell, the British film and theater director who, starting in the late ‘90s, worked quite fruitfully in the realms of mainstream romantic comedy (“Notting Hill”) and drama (“Changing Lanes”) and could also hit it almost out of the park with edgier fare like “Enduring Love” and “Venus” as the early aughts went on. Don’t sleep on his 1993 British miniseries “The Buddha of Suburbia,” the first of several collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi. “The Duke” is not his all-time-best picture, but it’s a very strong one, and it showcases his varied strengths as a filmmaker rather nicely.
The movie is based on a true, and indeed peculiar caper: the 1961 theft from the National Gallery of a Goya portrait, painted around 1812, of the Duke of Wellington. Jim Broadbent, clearly delighted with his meaty role, plays Kempton Bunton, an enlightened working man in Newcastle on Tyme whose detailed and fervent beliefs concerning the rights of the lower classes and the elderly consistently get him fired from whatever job he manages to procure. (First he’s a cab driver, then pushing loaves about at a bread factory.) He’s also an amateur playwright. Much to his wife Dorothy’s consternation, one of his subjects is the death of their teen daughter.
Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s script introduces us to Kempton in court for the theft, and then goes six months back to present a portrait of the man’s eccentric sense of activism. A couple of inspectors come around to his house. Seems he has a television in the family flat. But he hasn’t got a BBC license, which was required at the time. Well, Kempton explains, while he does indeed have a television, he has removed from it the coil that allows reception of the BBC. No BBC, no license, he explains. He insists the fee is an unfair tax. And while he’s getting on in years himself, he thinks that the fee should be waived for the elderly who might not be able to easily afford it.
Later in the movie, when the theft has happened and investigators are examining Kempton’s “ransom” note—he’ll return the painting in exchange for money to pay for a score of fees—a woman examining the written demands calls Kempton “a Don Quixote type.” Exactly, and with all the energy too. As Dorothy, Helen Mirren beautifully conveys both the exasperation and love the character feels for Kempton, while Broadbent makes Kempton both kind of admirable and a little bit ridiculous.
If you’ve ever seen his documentary “Nothing Like A Dame,” released here as “Tea With the Dames,” which chronicled conversations between the Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright, you know that Michell adored and revered actors. So it’s hardly surprising that the movie is beautifully acted from the top all the way down. Fionn Whitehead is remarkably ingratiating as Kempton’s teenage son, who believes in his dad utterly—indeed, more utterly that we’re initially shown. And Matthew Goode is drolly understated as Kempton’s lawyer, who winds up very surprised by the jury’s verdict.
The pace is spanking and Michell does some crafty misdirection, so to speak, that adds an element of mystery to the scenario. Tidy but hardly pat, “The Duke” is a refined good time at the movies.
Now playing in select theaters.
Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton
Helen Mirren as Dorothy Bunton
Matthew Goode as Jeremy Hutchinson QC
Aimee Kelly as Irene Boslover
Fionn Whitehead as Jackie
Charlotte Spencer as Pammy