Rated R. At Landmark Kendall Square.
As it turns out, “The Duke,” the penultimate effort from the late South Africa-born director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”), who died last year, turns out to be one of his very best. Based on a true story and brilliantly cast, the film boasts Jim Broadbent as the real-life Kempton Bunton, a taxi driver in 1961 Newcastle in the north of England, who steals the Francisco Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London as a protest over TV license fees.
As his proper, impatient, cleaning-lady wife Dorothy aka Dolly, whose primary client is the posh and kind Mrs. Gowlin (Anna Maxwell Martin). Helen Mirren finds a perfect foil in Broadbent. These two storied actors shine as the working-class odd couple. He is an ardent idealist who removes the “gizmo” that receives the BBC signal from the family television and claims he therefore doesn’t have to pay the fee and serves a short time in H.M. Prison Durham for his offense. She is very rigid and finds her husband intolerable.
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.
They live in a modest home with motorcycle-riding Jackie (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk”), one of their two grown sons. They had a daughter, who was killed at age 18 riding a bicycle her father bought her. When he isn’t getting fired from a job, Chekhov buff Kempton bangs out rejected television plays on his typewriter in his makeshift office. One of the teleplays is titled “The Adventures of Susan Christ.” He and Jackie set up a desk on the street for a petition Kempton has written to make TV free.
“The Duke” is the story of a classic oddball, a modern-day Don Quixote-cum-Robin Hood, and Broadbent plays it to the hilt. When the portrait goes missing, Kempton and Jackie hide it in a hidden panel in the back of an old wardrobe. Kempton begins writing letters to The Daily Mirror, the working-man’s newspaper, asking for the painting’s value to be used to pay the license fees of veterans and old people. At first he is ignored. The clueless authorities believe the theft is the work of “an Italian criminal gang.”
The screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (“National Theater Live: Young Marx”) is profane, often very funny and quite droll. When we see the theft in a flashback, the Goya painting is removed from its stand and the painting behind it will give you a laugh.
When Kempton gets a job at a bread factory, you can be sure the writers will channel Lucille Ball.
The technical credits, beginning with cinematography by Mike Eley (“The Dig”) and score by five-time Oscar nominee George Fenton are first rate. As the sensual, divorced girlfriend of the Buntons’ sketchy, older son Kenny (Jack Bandeira), Charlotte Spencer (TV’s “Sanditon”) is delightfully bad in a very good sort of way.
The split-screen, archival, color footage of early 1960s London brings the “Swinging Sixties” back to life. “The Duke” delivers a much more realistic 1960s England than the recent, much hipper and stylized “Last Night in Soho.”
Mirren shows us the depth of Dorothy’s grief and turns Dorothy’s reserved nature into a great virtue. In spite of the foul language of the crude men around her, Dorothy insists on decorum in her presence As Kempton’s sly barrister, Matthew Goode is another asset.
FYI: Kempton’s bedtime reading is, of course, George Orwell.
(“The Duke” contains profanity and a sexually suggestive scene.)