For a movie about a real-life heist, there isn’t a lot of external pressure or tension in British import The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. Instead, this pleasingly offbeat drama with lightly comedic overtones focuses its attention and energies mostly inward, on domestic matters and the resultant discord which gets kicked up after a 1960s family man steals a painting as an act of social protest.
In this sense, The Duke is a film which, from its earliest frames through its conclusion, feels more like a warm blanket than a rousing adventure, more unhurried—and contently so—than urgent and cathartic. That fact may leave some viewers wanting, but it’s perhaps an appropriate mood for a film which represents the final work of the late director Roger Michell.
Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) is an English, working-class autodidact and would-be playwright whose headstrong adherence to a set of socialist beliefs is a constant source of friction for those around him. After giving free rides to an impoverished World War I veteran, Bunton is let go from his job as a taxi driver; later, when he sticks up for a Pakistani immigrant at a commercial bakery, he’s fired there as well. This occupational impermanence places no small burden on his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), who keeps the couple financially afloat with her work as a housekeeper.
Of the Buntons’ two young adult sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira), only the former seems partial to the well-intentioned but habitually bumbling schemes of their tilting-at-windmills father. His longest-running obsession, something of a family joke, is his vehement opposition to paying for a television license — something they could afford, but Bunton refuses on principle, believing it should be free for pensioners.
After failing to gain support with a local petition (and serving a 13-day jail sentence in protest when authorities discover the petition is a violation), Bunton convinces his wife to give him two days in London to make his case to government officials. Spurned there, Bunton then turns his attention toward a portrait of the Duke of Wellington painted by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Sensing the opportunity for a symbolic swap, he takes it from the National Gallery as a ransom note for a block of TV licenses for old people.
When his strategy unravels, Bunton stands trial for theft. There, his barrister Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode) attempts to thread a legal needle by arguing that Bunton never intended to permanently deprive fellow countrymen of access to the painting, but instead wanted to merely “borrow” it to further his populist campaign.
The enormous box office success of Notting Hill will always define Michell’s filmography, but his body of work actually evidenced a predilection for thornier fare—in particular obstinate and/or self-destructive characters and toxic familial relationships, as found in movies like The Mother, Venus, and My Cousin Rachel.
The Duke edges up adjacent to many of these same themes, but essentially blinks. If there’s a simple diagnosis of the problem, it’s that its characterization of Kempton (and his relationship with Dorothy) reads a bit too much as an open book. Screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman establish early on the source and nature of the pair’s dislocation in very thickly applied, direct strokes—the death of their 18-year-old daughter, Marion, some years earlier—and do little to tease out any complications or shades of grey.
The script does have a sort of gender inversion (apparently genuine) in regards to expected modes of coping, with Dorothy arguing grief is inherently private, and the more overtly sensitive Kempton complaining, “You never let me talk about it.” Unfortunately, The Duke fails to meaningfully plumb this curiosity, or do much beyond pull this dramatic lever in very forthright and anticipated ways throughout the movie.
There’s also the matter of the film’s framing; its cold open establishes a trial setting, so it’s a simply an open question how long it will take to get there. Post-theft, there are really only one or two moments of tension, fairly quickly dissipated, so over the first hour-plus, when some of the same feelings are being restated or arguments are being had, it feels like The Duke is dragging its feet.
And yet the courtroom portion of the movie, which gives wide berth to some rah-rah, common-man speechifying, doesn’t necessarily emerge as a powerhouse finale. Instead, there is a single twist, just under 70 minutes in, which complicates Bunton’s motivations. It feels like the placement of this revelation either earlier or much later would have had a more profound impact. A more narratively adventurous telling of this same tale could and would have explored different seams and fault-lines with respect to its character choices, the theft, the trial, and aftermath.
These mostly structural criticisms, however, stand in contrast to everything else about the movie which makes it such a delight. Michell is a consummate craftsman, and first and foremost he understands intuitively how to locate the lived-in domestic humor in this story. The absurdity and notoriety of the incident itself (a huge story at the time, even referenced in the James Bond film Dr. No) is its own thing, but Michell’s staging is lively and engaging throughout. There’s an easygoing elegance to the whole affair, powered by a playful score from George Fenton, and spry editing from Kristina Hetherington, with the latter also abetted by some period-referencing split-screens and wipes.
The script has some fun around the edges with the haughty certainty of its police investigators, including a scene in which they snidely dismiss the contributions of a female handwriting expert. And the lead performances, too, are simply tremendously appealing. Broadbent previously portrayed a financially distressed character with a marriage teetering on the rocks for Michell, in 2013’s Le Week-End. Here he plays something difficult, a selfishly unselfish man (“a fantasist who believes he’s an idealist,” as one character describes him), with a robust sincerity that wins one over to his Robin Hood mindset. Mirren, meanwhile, can of course play put-upon in her sleep, but her work here is that of a savvy accompanist, providing notes which tell the story of the pair’s marriage, and help fill in reasons for Kempton’s choices.
Together, this talented duo gives The Duke life, and a sense of Everyman connection. If the film isn’t quite as complicated as one might sometimes wish it to be, that isn’t to say that this unassuming version of its decidedly strange true tale is anything other than agreeable on its own terms.