“The movie succeeds when it remains gently, consistently funny, but demonstrates real interest in the meaning of its story and what those ideas mean for the people it’s about.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s a balance for a small-scale, “based on a true story” dramedy that Roger Michell’s The Duke hits the sweet spot for: it chooses an event that’s a known quantity for its target audience, but not so monumental that it carries the laborious task of retracing well-trodden history, and taking on the proportions of a greater epic. It can form its own world, and for the most part, Richard Beam and Clive Coleman’s script does so gracefully and charmingly. The film dramatizes the spectacular tale of Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a populist, salt-of-the-earth, self-styled man of letters in 1960s England, who advocates for good causes and writes plays, though neither with much historical success. Amid his protest of the television license fee (required to watch the BBC) being levied on retirees of fixed income like himself, he’s accused of stealing Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London, which it had just acquired for a hearty fee. The evidence against him is strong – you see, he returned it to the museum in person. While he’s expressed outrage that a government-funded institution could shell out big money for one measly painting while many languish in poverty, he’s still facing serious punishment if convicted, and the ordeal rocks his working-class family, which consists of his wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), and adult sons Kenny (Jack Bandeira) and Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). But Bunton – a flighty but thoroughly devoted activist for the people – is a sharp and likable man, and as the case gains notoriety, he finds himself a beloved champion for a weary public, as he takes on a comfortable establishment indifferent to their plight.
The Duke frames its story around the impending trial and what follows, but critically, it understands that it’s strongest when focusing on the characters. It knows that what they believe, how this manifests, and how they relate to each other is far more interesting fodder for this movie than going for a genteel spin on true crime. Kempton Bunton is a charming and driven man, and Jim Broadbent is certainly good in the lead role, clearly having a good time conveying both the character’s fiery passions and egalitarian spirit, as well as his ability to navigate the trial with a charismatic, quick wit. He’s the lead of a strong cast who relishes the large and small details of their characters; playing opposite him, Mirren makes the most out of Dorothy’s relatively limited role in the film as the rational and clear-eyed counterpart to her husband’s wild and frequent flights of fancy. And I would be remiss not to give special mention to Whitehead, as Jackie: his role in the film slowly grows in magnitude, and the ways that he both reflects and builds on his father’s strong influence over his personality are reflected well in a flexible performance.
Great care is evident to how these performances are crafted and directed. This is a movie with a deep-rooted sense of its characters’ values and traits alike, but it has a light, deft instinct at heart. It’s certainly the kind of bizarre true story that lends itself to a comic touch, but this is also where the film struggles: when the script pushes too hard in this direction, it risks losing the core human spirit that it otherwise has such interest in, and becoming more a show of eccentricities played for laughs, which directly offsets what it’s been striving for. The humor is best when it’s an extension of its survey of these people and their lives, instead of the other way around. This was the last film by Michell, who died in 2021, and though The Duke may not be mentioned among his more famous titles, like Notting Hill, this movie still feels like a fitting capstone to his career. He understands the balance that this film strives for, and knows how to guide his cast in that direction. He finds the depths and intricacies – large and small – to this tale and gently emphasizes them, to solidly, consistently impressive effect. The movie succeeds when it remains gently, consistently funny, but demonstrates real interest in the meaning of its story and what those ideas mean for the people it’s about.