THE DUKE - Review - We Are Movie Geeks


THE DUKE – Review

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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 this delightful, true story-based, quirky comic tale, Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren costar as a bickering couple in a tale of a working class Newcastle man with a plan to ransom a stolen painting, Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, to provide benefits for low-income retirees. Broadbent plays the rarely practical but idealistic man with the plan, while Helen Mirren stars as his long-suffering, more practical wife. THE DUKE focuses on a real 1961 incident in which a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, newly purchased by the British government for 140,000 pounds, was stolen from the national gallery, the first and so far only theft from the gallery to date. The authorities are convinced a professional ring of thieves, possibly Italian, are behind the theft, until they receive a ransom note demanding millions – for charity.

Britain is a nation famous for eccentric characters and director Roger Michell’s comedy mines the classic humor in that vein. Often these are upper-crust eccentrics, so this working class fellow is a refreshing change, especially with this character’s obsessive crusading on behalf of the poor and forgotten. The fact that this is based on a real person makes the film all the more charming and heart-warming, even if the film is more true-ish than strictly factual.

THE DUKE is as quirky and charming as its lead character, and much of its delightful charm comes from Jim Broadbent and also the comically crackling scenes between Broadbent and Helen Mirren as the seeming mismatched couple. Broadbent’s happy, impractical dreamer Kempton Bunton is described in the film’s promotions as a taxi driver but that is just one in a long line of jobs as the oddly-named fellow pursues his true passions, writing plays and waging an on-going protest campaign for free TV for seniors. Kempton Bunton is a self-educated, endlessly optimistic man who aspires to be a playwright and is a staunch defender of the poor, particularly veterans, widows and pensioners, but who has trouble holding a job and making a living. His perpetually-worried, practical wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) takes up the financial slack by cleaning house for the well-off Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin), the wife of an local official, who admires her hard-working housekeeper and her idealistic husband.

In 1961, Britons are required to buy a license to own a TV to watch BBC, but Bunton protests that it is unfair to Old Age Pensioners (OAP) for whom TV might be their only entertainment or company. Bunton is outraged when the government buys the Wellington portrait, noting how many TV licenses it could pay for with those funds. His wisecracking, more practical and worried wife Dorothy loves him but is clearly frustrated by his lack of practical sense about making a living and embarrassed by his many community campaigns. Bunton makes a deal with Dorothy: if she lets him take a two-day trip to London to try to speak to Parliament about his TV campaign and it fails, he will give up his community activism and his play writing and just get a steady job. She agrees, but while in London, Bunton gets up to far more. When he returns, the news is full of talk about the theft of the painting.

Director Roger Michell’s film focuses more is on the trial than on the heist itself, although we do learn about that too, and on the couple’s home life. That choice gives more room for the entertaining banter between the couple as well as showcasing Jim Broadbent’s entertaining humorous patter in court. An excellent Matthew Goode plays Bunton’s barrister Jeremy Hutchinson, a high-priced attorney married to a famous stage actress, presumably doing pro bono work here. Goode offers his own humorous touches while also serving as a foil for the oddball Bunton, while John Heffernan plays prosecutor Edward Cussen, his nearly-unbeatable adversary, as amusingly superior as he calls his long list of witnesses. James Wilby plays the long-suffering judge, facing a court gallery filled with sometimes-noisy Bunton supporters, and who at one point reminds Bunton they are in court and he is not “auditioning for a musical.” Charles Edwards is droll as the very proper chief investigator Sir Joseph Simpson who is so certain he is tracking an elusive team of international pro thieves and is so chagrined when the real culprit is revealed.

The Buntons’ youngest son still lives at home but the couple actually had three children, although they lost their only daughter as a young woman in an accident that still haunts the family. Fionn Whitehead is excellent as the couple’s well-meaning younger adult son Jackie, a sharp contrast to their older son Kenny (Jack Bandeira), an often-broke petty criminal who returns home to lay low, along with his still-married girlfriend Pamela (Charlotte Spencer), much to the dismay of his morally-straight mother. Aimee Kelly plays Irene, who becomes Jackie Bunton’s supportive girlfriend

At a brief 96 minutes, THE DUKE moves along briskly, but gives us enough time to get to know the characters and explore the quirks of the oddball story. Cleverly, the film is partly shot in the style of 1961 films, with split screen shots and a bouncy jazz score, which gives it an extra charm.

The biggest delight in this off-beat warm and funny tale is Jim Broadbent’s performance as the quip-prone, idealistic Bunton. But he is closely followed by Helen Mirren and their marvelous bantering, battling scenes are among the film’s best. The film is structured to reveal some surprises that came out much later, long after the trial, but there are moments when jumping back and forth in time feels a bit awkward. Still, it is a minor flaw in an otherwise warm, amusing, unlikely true story tale.

THE DUKE opens Friday, Apr. 29, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and other theaters.

RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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