Saturday 22 October 2022

Movie Review: The Duke (2020)

A heist comedy-drama, The Duke is a charming character study about an eccentric-with-a-cause stumbling into high-profile thievery.

In 1961, sixty year old Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is on trial in London for stealing Goya's Duke of Wellington portrait. Flashbacks reveal the events of the previous 6 months.

Kempton lives in Newcastle with his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) and son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). He is an unemployable anti-authoritarian windbag, and argues vehemently that seniors should be exempt from paying the television license fee. The long-suffering and exasperated Dorothy supports the family by working as a housecleaner.

The Wellington painting is the latest attraction at London's National Gallery. Kempton heads down to the capital to raise awareness for his campaign, and returns home with the stolen painting. Jackie helps him stash it in a dresser. With the authorities short on clues, Kempton starts sending letters offering to return the painting in return for a seniors' television licence fee exemption, but family complications disrupt his agenda.

Inspired by real events, The Duke is a laid-back, chuckle-full truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. The British production is helmed with a light touch by director Roger Michell, and the production design recreates a working class 1960s Newcastle suburb in all its shabby glory. Writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman recognize the character of Kempton Bunton as their ace attraction, and Jim Broadbent excels in portraying a man who was probably insufferable in real life, but jovial company for a 96 minute movie.

After establishing that Kempton is heading to court and pleading not guilty, the first half flashback briskly sets the stage by establishing the environment, the Bunton household dynamics, and the tension between husband and wife, all while the television and newspapers trumpet the arrival of Goya's painting at the National Gallery. Helen Mirren's Dorothy is the window into Kempton's world, her frustration and embarrassment always close to the boiling point as she carries the load of keeping food on the table while he tilts at windmills.

The second half is mostly set within the courtroom, as Kempton stands trial but uses the stage to push his anti-television license agenda with boisterous charisma. What looks like a clear-cut case of theft takes a few good twists and turns, and Kempton enshrines himself as a working class folk hero, Michell capturing the shifting dynamics through the reactions of court staff and the rowdy public gallery. The Duke is a feel-good story, proudly scrappy at the edges.

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