Art and crime have always been strange but frequent bedfellows. From the often-illegal activities of Caravaggio to the sensational art heists of the 20th Century, public fascination with both never seems to wane. And while art crime can be deadly serious, director Roger Michell gives it a comic twist in The Duke.
Michell’s films tend to veer between sweet rom-coms (Notting Hill) and heart-rending dramas (Blackbird). But they all bear the director’s trademark light touch. This film is no different.
The Duke follows the (mis)adventures of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent). When the film opens in 1961, he’s on trial for stealing Goya’s painting of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. The action then flashes back some months to explore what led to the charges. Kempton is an oddball who’s decided to start a crusade against television licences. Digressing slightly, this curiously British invention required everyone who owned a TV set to pay a licence fee (tax) for it. Kempton shrewdly observes this impacts the elderly and disabled (including war veterans) disproportionately. So he wants the government to make TV fee for pensioners. He even tries to dodge the tax himself – leading to legal trouble – much to the chagrin of his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren).
Kempton’s one ally is his well-meaning younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). Unlike his older brother Kenny (Jack Bandiera), Jackie is trying to stay on the right side of the law. So when the Goya turns up in their flat, Kempton and Jackie hatch a plan to conceal it until they can work out what to do with it. But it doesn’t take Kempton long to realise that the hugely expensive artwork could be a means to doing a lot of good.
Going in, I thought I knew what to expect from The Duke. I guessed it would be one of those pleasant but forgettable British kitchen-sink films. But Michell takes the story to some unexpected places. He even throws in unexpected stylistic touches, including a few Zelig (look it up, kids) moments incorporating the actors into period footage. And writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman craft a compelling tale with a surprising twist that I certainly didn’t see coming.
Jim Broadbent (Six Minutes to Midnight) delivers a typically understated but completely charming performance as Kempton. Helen Mirren (Anna) matches him stride-for-stride as the long-suffering Dorothy. Fionn Whitehead (Voyagers) delivers solid support as Jackie. Look out too for Matthew Goode as Kempton’s barrister. But perhaps the best performance in the film comes from Heather Craney who makes the most of a very limited role as Debbie, clerk of the court at Kempton’s trial.
It’s taken a while for The Duke (actually completed in 2020) to reach these shores, but it’s worth the wait. This charming film delivers on many levels and is definitely worth a look.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Tea with the Dames – movie review
- British Film Festival 2021
- Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s) – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television