In the midst of big budget studio fare and upcoming blockbusters, it’s nice to know that there are still smaller, more intimate films to enjoy. We don’t have too much of it here in America, but thankfully our friends across the Atlantic are expert at filling the need. The latest is The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, though “latest” might be a bit of a misnomer. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival back in September 2020, and is only now getting its proper theatrical (and home VOD) release after several COVID-necessitated delays. It was worth the wait, thankfully, an intriguing and quirky story about the most unlikely of heists, filled with clever dialogue and stalwart performances.
Broadbent is endlessly charming as Kempton Bunton, a pensioner from Newcastle in the 1960s. He’s been in and out of prison several times for owning a television set without a BBC license. For those unfamiliar with how British television works (or at least, how it worked back then), it’s sort of the inverse of the system in America. In the U.S., people buy a TV and can subscribe to any number of channel and streaming packages, but the most basic networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, etc.) operate on a government license, identified by their call letters (KTLA for a local example here in Los Angeles). That license has to be renewed with the FCC on a regular basis, and the networks have to abide by certain rules to maintain it. And while the channels are often grouped together in cable subscriptions, strictly speaking, any American with an antenna (digital ones were handed out in 2008 to substitute for over-the-air signals) can access those channels for free, as they are considered publicly-owned.
In Britain, on the other hand, it works the opposite way. Televisions were built with signal receivers for the BBC and other affiliated stations, and the home viewer had to procure a government license to access that signal. Bunton, whose income is low and fixed as a quasi-retiree, advocates for free TV licenses for the elderly, veterans, and the handicapped. As part of his protest, he physically removed the BBC adapter from his unit, declaring that he’d only watch private, commercial channels like ITV. Suffice to say, the ploy doesn’t work.
Bunton’s quixotically small crusades for incremental benefits are at times endearing, especially to his friends and son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). But to others he’s seen as an annoyance and a rabble-rouser, particularly to his wife Dorothy (Mirren), who finds him incorrigible and at times beyond hope. He also costs himself a couple of jobs for his outspokenness.
The way Mirren and Broadbent play off each other is absolutely delightful, as they’re almost constantly arguing, but you can see the genuine affection the characters still have for each other. It’s an all-too-rare look at how marriage evolves over decades. There’s great chemistry when they’re happy, good humor in their shit-talk, and legitimate pathos when it comes to their methods of grieving for their daughter, who died some 15 years prior to the film’s events. Dorothy has never even been to her daughter’s grave, while Kempton – in stark contrast to his tax protest against the BBC – writes and submits plays to the broadcaster telling stories about mourning. It’s really touching, because both extremes are made believable by the quality of the performances.
Kempton’s righteous ire is raised one last time in 1961, when a news broadcast announces that the government has paid an enormous sum (140,000 pounds, which would be about 3.1 million in today’s money) to prevent the sale of Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington to an American who planned to take it out of the country. In Bunton’s mind, it’s an insult to every working class Briton that their government is willing to pay so much for a bloody painting, but not to make something useful like TV licenses free of charge to those with low incomes. Promising that this will be his last scheme, Kempton gets Dorothy’s permission to travel to London to lodge his complaint in person. When he returns two days later, he has the painting itself.
Now, this is a relatively famous bit of art theft, mostly for the farce that Kempton’s trial later becomes, as Broadbent is able to use the character’s innate charisma to make the case that he was only borrowing the painting and had no intention of keeping it, therefore it wasn’t theft. But there are other great elements at play as well, particularly the investigation from top authorities, who utterly dismissed the possibility of anyone but an expert criminal pulling off the heist. The incident was even noteworthy enough to be featured in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, in 1962 (the clip is shown in this film, with Kempton and Dorothy laughing from the cinema).
But in something of a departure, this is one of the few times where I would say that if you’re not familiar with the story, DON’T do any research before you go in. There are serious plot points that will be utterly spoiled, ruining a lot of the fun, if you go in with prior knowledge. That doesn’t mean the film can’t be enjoyed, but the story structure definitely suffers if you know the details before seeing the film.
And while Broadbent, Mirren, Whitehead, and Matthew Goode (as Kempton’s barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson, who had his own storied life) all give excellent performances, and while the dialogue is just the right amount of cheeky cleverness, this movie definitely has its flaws. For the sake of compressing the timeline (from five years to six months), a subplot is written in about Bunton’s other son Kenny (Jack Bandiera) and his girlfriend Pammy (Charlotte Spencer), the latter of whom tries to extort Kempton midway through the proceedings. It goes absolutely nowhere and serves no real purpose other than to create dramatic tension. Similarly, Jackie has a relationship with a young woman named Irene (Aimée Kelly) which is sweet at times – particularly as Jackie talks about his dream of building boats for a living – but again it has no relevance to the main story. It’s just filler meant to make us care more about the Buntons, but it’s unnecessary because the story itself, plus their performances, already accomplishes that goal.
Still, this is a nice, dryly funny distraction in a sea of blockbuster noise this time of year. It won’t win any awards, but it serves as a welcome respite if you’re looking for something just a bit wholesome, even though the inciting incident is grand theft. It’s the kind of movie where you can sit back, relax, and turn your brain ON. It’s cinematic comfort food for those of us who prefer a tasty toffee to a tub of popcorn once in a while.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you familiar with this case? Is it humanly possible for Jim Broadbent or Helen Mirren to give a bad performance? Let me know!