THE STORY – In 1961, a 60-year-old taxi driver steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. He sends ransom notes saying that he will return the painting if the government invests more in care for the elderly.
THE CAST – Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Anna Maxwell Martin & Matthew Goode
THE TEAM – Roger Michell (Director), Richard Bean & Clive Coleman (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
When Roger Michell made “The Duke,” he surely had no idea it would be his last narrative film before his untimely death in September 2021. And yet, it’s a fitting final film for the director who gave us everything from romantic comedies like “Notting Hill” to dark period dramas like “My Cousin Rachel.” “The Duke” is a film that meditates on those who wish to improve the world, even if their methods are a bit off the beaten path, with a central character who seems like the human equivalent of Paddington Bear. But, more than anything, it’s an incredibly British-centric film with a high degree of charm and thus feels like a loving tribute to Michell’s career, which was unfairly cut short. The film was meant to premiere much earlier after its 2020 festival debut, but it was pushed back because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Luckily, “The Duke” hasn’t suffered the same fate as some other delayed films and still feels as fitting now as it would have two years ago.
The screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is based on the actual events of the 1961 theft of the “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” from London’s National Gallery. In 1960, the portrait was stolen. So who could manage to steal such an important and recently-acquired painting from one of the top museums in the UK? A seasoned expert thief? A crime syndicate? Nope. A 60-something-year-old socialist taxi driver named Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent). He is the sort of fascinatingly eccentric character that you could only find in a British film (or perhaps a British town like Newcastle upon Tyne, where the film takes place). When the film starts, he’s been fired from his jobs, first as a taxi driver and then in a bakery, both for being too chatty and helping people. He writes plays that he sends away in hopes of becoming a proper playwright and campaigns for free TV licenses for pensioners and veterans in his free time. In fact, we first see him get into trouble with the law because he’s refused to pay for a TV license in protest, much to the exasperation of his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), who works as a cleaner for the wife of a councilman Mrs. Gowling (Anna Maxwell Martin).
Kenton is upset when he hears that the British government has spent a considerable sum of money acquiring the National Gallery’s Goya portrait. He believes that the money would have been better spent on the actual people of the United Kingdom. In response, Kenton travels to London and steals the painting, seemingly too easy, which he brings home. He and his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) are less afraid of the authorities and more afraid of Dorothy finding it, so they build a false back to a wardrobe to hide it in. Eventually, Kenton gives himself up and is brought to trial, where he’s represented by the suave Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode).
The theatricality of the courtroom scenes makes “The Duke” one of the best of its kind in recent movies. Kenton endears himself to the country, and the audience, to the point that the government is afraid to properly prosecute him and risk making him even more of a people’s hero. While his hijinks are amusing, it’s his passion for assisting others that makes the character so endearing. Broadbent is perfectly cast in this role, pouring every ounce of his charm and warmth into Kenton. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character with the same delightful results. But underneath the fun of Kenton’s campaigning and thievery, a sense of melancholia runs through the movie. Dorothy and Kenton’s issues in their relationship, and Dorothy’s neverending exhaustion, are at least partially rooted in the death of their teenage daughter years before. As much as this is a film about the 1961 portrait theft, it is also more subtly about a couple dealing with their grief, providing extra layers to the characters, allowing both Broadbent and Mirren to do what they do best.
This working-class British film has much to appreciate, with solid performances from Broadbent and Mirren, plus George Fenton’s energetic score. Despite having a big twist near the end, which could’ve used some extra runtime, Michell packs the story into a compact 96 minutes. “The Duke” is not as exciting as you might expect it to be based on the story that it’s telling, but it’s more focused on being a character study than a heist movie. It’s a perfect rainy day film that your parents and grandparents will likely love. Something I’m sure the late Roger Michell would be very proud of.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A lovely performance by Jim Broadbent in a film sure to make you smile.
THE BAD – It is somehow much less exciting than you would expect a film based on this true story to be.
THE OSCARS –