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Review: The Duke -“A feel good journey with enchanting performances”

Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton, Helen Mirren as Dorothy Bunton in THE DUKE. Photo by Mike Eley, BSC. Courtesy of Pathe UK. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In 1961 a portrait of The Duke of Wellington became the first, and the last, painting to be stolen from the National Gallery in London.  The painting, by Francisco Goya was, at the time, worth £140,000 which is what the British government paid for the piece of art in order to ensure that it remained within the UK.  It was only on display in the gallery for 19 days before it was taken and hidden away for the next four years.  This true story is the basis for director Roger Michell’s (Notting Hill) film entitled, The Duke.  

Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is a little aimless.  His wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren) cleans house for a local Councillor, providing as best she can, but with Kempton driving a taxi only seemingly on occasion, the couple is only just keeping things together.  Kempton rather likes to write plays that he optimistically sends to the BBC, and to watch television, which he does without purchasing a license to do so, something that lands him in prison for non-payment once the officials get wind.  His son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) picks him up after his two week stint. 

But Kempton’s jail time only helps to emphasize his opinion that the television tax is ridiculous, especially for old age pensioners (OAP) for whom the TV acts as the “modern cure for loneliness.”  He is adamant everyone should have access, and he is furious when he sees that the government has spent an absurd amount of money on a painting, when those funds could have gone to providing free television to OAPs.  He takes to streets, trying to campaign for free access for the elderly but, largely ignored, he makes a final trip to London to try his hand at affecting change.  Rejected and dismayed by his lack of progress Kempton finds himself in Trafalgar Square, right outside the National Gallery.  Days later Kempton and Jackie will be looking at the missing Goya painting in their home’s back bedroom.

Even with a main plot point being the robbery of this famous work of art, do not be expecting an Oceans Eleven style romp.  The Duke is no heist movie, with Michell keeping the actual robbery of the painting to just a few short on screen minutes.  The film is instead more invested and interested in the Bunton’s home life and the affects the presence of the painting has on their marriage, as well as Kempton’s ability to use it for social change.  

Jim Broadbent is simply delightful as Kempton Bunton, a man who sees himself as something of a Robin Hood type – stealing from the government and keeping hostage something they paid an inordinate amount of money for in order to bring about social justice.  It’s hard to believe anyone truly filling the mischievous shoes of Kempton quite as well as Broadbent, an actor that seems completely comfortable playing this leading role of an average bloke, yet keeps him compelling.  Pairing him with the always reliable Helen Mirren creates moments of warmth and tenderness.  Yet for me, I found the scenes of Broadbent during his trial, where he plays often against the equally charismatic Matthew Goode as his defence lawyer, particularly charming.  It are these moments where Kempton will win you over, if he hasn’t yet already.  For all his flaws, Mr. Bunton makes it difficult not to cheer for him.      

It’s hard to believe that a true story like this took so long to come to light, but it does so as a crowd pleasing, entertaining film, the type of light comedy seldom made anymore.  Director Roger Michell, who passed away in September of 2021, finishes his career by creating a quintessentially British underdog story that is perfectly poised for a rainy-afternoon get away, a feel good journey, with enchanting performances of which he certainly could be proud.  The Duke never reinvents the wheel, doesn’t push past the boundaries within which it is framed, but it never feels like it needs to, instead developing as a comfortable, familiar, cozy watch, one best accompanied by your most enjoyed cup of tea.  

The Duke was released in theatres in New York and Los Angeles April 22, 2022 before expanding to additional North American cities in the coming weeks.

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