There are times I look up at the big screen during a film featuring Jim Broadbent and I simply smile.
The Duke is one of those times.
Easily one of contemporary cinema's greatest blessings, Broadbent is a British icon who only occasionally gets the attention he deserves stateside. The Duke is a quintessential British flick, a British tale written and directed by Brits and featuring a largely British ensemble bring to life the story about a real-life British point in history.
That point in history is the 1961 theft of Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London's National Gallery of Art. To this date, it remains the only successful theft from the National Gallery. It was one 60-year-old taxi driver named Kempton Bunton who perpetrated the act despite initial theories that it must've been some sort of organized crime syndicate pilfering.
Nope. It was Bunton, a bit of a bumbling tax protestor who resents having to pay for television, England finances the BBC with a "television tax," especially when the government has money for such lofty purchases as the aforementioned Goya.
I loved every single moment of The Duke, perhaps not a surprising fact since I am known for my love of British cinema and even moreso this exact type of British Cinema. What is this type of British cinema? The Duke is a feisty film, quietly sentimental yet respectful and with emotions worn underneath the sleeve barely visible to the human eye. The Duke is the final narrative feature film from acclaimed filmmaker Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus, Hyde Park on Hudson) and if this is how we are to remember Michell then the memories will most assuredly be pleasant.
The Duke is a wonderfully charming endeavor, Broadbent sublimely bringing Kempton to life as a good-hearted chap who cares deeply about the world around him but seemingly unable to make things right for himself or anyone around him. He deeply grieves the death of a daughter 13 years earlier. It's a death he and his wife, played perfectly by Dame Helen Mirren, still won't talk about even as Kempton himself is desperate to express himself regarding the loss.
Kempton also believes that the elderly ought to be afforded free television, a fact that wasn't true in 1961 and only became true as recently as 2000.
Broadbent has long excelled with this type of character, though the Oscar-winning actor never phones in his performance. Broadbent finds the emotional nuances of a character whose grief is palpable yet whose coping skills have largely come to include concern for others and a fierce, often humorous, determination to make things right.
For a good majority of the film, Mirren's Dorothy is a wounded soul whose grief is kept inward and who has grown weary of her husband's antics and it would seem of the world around here. She is not emotionally distraught. She is simply tired...of everything. However, watching Mirren work wonders here as the story unfolds is a reminder of just how gifted Mirren is and how this Oscar-winning actress joins Broadbent in never phoning in her performances. Mirren has, perhaps, gained more acclaim here in the U.S. precisely because she's been a little more able and willing to show up in as many box-office blockbusters as arthouse darlings.
In case you're wondering, The Duke leans toward arthouse darling.
Fionn Whitehead also shines here as the grown son of Kempton and Dorothy, occasionally seeming to be lost in the shadow of his sister's death yet also possessing of a loyal, devoted love for his father and a determination to have the world see him through a different, more affirming lens. Matthew Goode is stand-out in a supporting turn, while kudos must also be given to the wonderful Heather Craney and Anna Maxwell Martin among others in a near-perfect ensemble.
The script by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman leans toward the playful rather than cynical. The Duke feels like the sort of beloved low-key Brit charmers from years past, an impact felt everywhere from George Fenton's wonderful original score to Mike Eley's observant and enveloping lensing for the film. The film's R-rating is utterly ridiculous, credited to language concerns and a very brief scene of sexuality.
It is most certainly a pity that Roger Michell, who passed away in September 2021, isn't alive to experience the success of The Duke, an absolute winner of a film that takes its place among the best of the low-key British comedies I've come to know and love over the years. With a wonderful ensemble cast and a deep understanding of the truth underneath the story of Kempton Bunton, The Duke is an intelligent and entertaining indie gem.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic