The parcel: Newcastle, 1961. Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a mild-mannered and talkative taxi driver, believes it is his civic duty to challenge perceived injustice. By removing a component from his television set to no longer pick up the BBC, he claims that he does not need a television licence. That’s not the only thing he feels aggrieved about, much to the chagrin of his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) and the support of his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). When Francisco Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington is displayed in the National Gallery to much fanfare, he travels to London to ‘borrow’ it and turn things around for the good of all…
The verdict: When is a theft not a theft? The answer to this is found in The Duke, one of the most curious stories in 20th century British legal history that lends credence to the theory that truth is stranger than fiction. It tells the true story of a Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old social justice activist who stole a Goya painting and then sent scrawled ransom notes to the police asking for the money to be donated to charity charity. He wanted to help those who couldn’t afford the burden of a TV license and other cost-of-living expenses (currently hot). It’s the kind of Robin Hood-style, life-affirming story ideal for a film adaptation that benefits greatly from this stranger truth than fiction theory. On its surface, The Duke has all the whimsy and eccentricity you might expect from such a story that could perhaps only have happened in Britain with its clearly defined class divisions. Dig deeper and there’s more to work.
Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s script is deceptively simple in its setup, establishing Kempton’s character, explaining the rationale for his actions, and then heading into a climactic courtroom scene. Well, not so culminating as he is perhaps rightly a little soft on his subject. While he leans into this simplicity, he also moves around his characters to establish them as decent people trying to initiate change by doing something provocative. This is where the storyline really shines, moving beyond its basic premise into something more meaningful for societal change – at a time when society and youth culture were changing rapidly. So it becomes a film with a message wrapped up in an attractive package, but with the kind of directorial nuance that reinforces it over its 95 minute fair. That’s thanks to the late Roger Michell, an often underrated journeyman director who directed similarly structured disguised films like Enduring Love and Venus.
Michell’s staging here is very fluid and discreet, leaving her actors to tackle the task at hand to make the characters and their motivations believable. It’s the way he guides them through the story that impresses the most, moving from potentially upsetting situations to scenes of quiet domestic life that are charming and quaint. If there was a big panic over the painting discovered deep in a cabinet, Michell plays it down by letting it wash over Jim Broadbent’s pleasant face in a prime example of perfect casting. In one of his best performances to date, Broadbent brings more to Kempton than meets the page, portraying him not as an eccentric charlatan, but as a man nearing retirement age who simply wanted to bring about a change (which would come about four decades later). ). There are wonderful touches of levity and joy in Broadbent’s performance as he charms the jury with his apology, but he also paints him as an ordinary, three-dimensional man with a purpose. Helen Mirren provides strong support as always, Broadbent’s yin to yang.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Delicious
Directed by Roger Michel.
With Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode.