When I read the description of The Duke, it immediately drew me in for two reasons. First, the cast is incredible, and I knew the acting would be without flaw. Second, the plot sounded incredibly entertaining, especially because it was a fictionalized account of a real story. My biggest hope was that it would live up to those two expectations. Thankfully, The Duke succeeds on all levels. The acting is incredible, the dialogue and story are hilarious, and the plot is entertaining.
The Duke is a comedy-drama directed by Roger Michell and a screenplay written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. In the film, based on the 1961 theft of Portrait of Duke Wellington, we meet a sixty-year-old taxi driver and self-educated man, Kempton Bunton, who is (Jim Broadbent) accused of the theft of the painting. The story details Kempton’s strong working-class belief that pensioners should not have to pay for a television license. As the story unfolds, we learn that he and his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) struggle with the death of their daughter Marion. Dorothy works as a housekeeper for the local councilman and hates her husband’s campaigning and writing that revolves around their daughter’s death. Kempton is aided in his pursuits by his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). The story details what leads Kempton to be arrested and how his barrister (Matthew Goode) defends him during the trial as the story twists and turns in surprising and endearing ways.
Part of what makes this film resonate so much is the realistic and truthful story. Despite the unusual circumstances, most of the story is an actual event, and so the characters are endearing in genuine ways that fiction sometimes fails to capture. This film has done an excellent job of giving us characters that are true to the events and capture the essence of who the individuals were. The other reason the plot works so well is the story is not told straightforwardly. We are given the beginning of the trial first, and the story jumps back six months to detail the events leading up to the prosecution of Kempton Bunton, allowing the writers to paint a complete picture of who he was and his interactions with his family as well as some of the causes for his actions. And it is his family that is critical to his actions and the truth behind the story.
One of the other elements that help keep the movie entertaining is the dialogue. It is funny, disarming, and honest. The characters also drive the dialogue. The rapport and fighting between Kempton and Dorothy are both charming and fun. The dialog pops and is memorable, as are a host of secondary characters. The whole scenario is outrageous, crazy, but humorous in many ways. And Kempton Bunton, as a character, has a beautiful heart and is charming and full of faith in people. That heart gives the story impact and emotion.
The performances are stellar. Jim Broadbent as Kempton is funny and warm, emotional and passionate in his portrayal yet loving. His dynamic and rapport with Helen Mirren are lovely and believable. The pair’s experience with performing and with working together shines on screen. Helen Mirren is without peer, her portrayal nuanced with emotion and a delight to watch. She and Jim Broadbent are perfect foils for each other. Fionn Whitehead as Jackie can carry his weight in the film. His performance is energetic but skilled, and he drives the story forward as much as the older performers. Matthew Goode, as Kempton’s barrister, gives a performance that is warm, intelligent, and full of humor. Even the secondary characters give dynamic and fantastic performances.
While the story is dynamic and full of humor, it is very character-driven. There are times it seems like the story veers off its direction. I caution patience as the story elements come together, but it can be slower as the story and characters develop. However, since that all leads to beautiful performances and a rich, character-driven plot, it is worth that tiny bit of wait.
If you love Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, you will adore this nuanced and highly entertaining story about an actual event. Every actor in the film gives a fantastic performance. The film and dialogue are hilarious. This was indeed one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen, primarily due to the excellent acting and the beautifully written dialogue. The story is also full of heart. If you love character-driven films, you will want to watch this as soon as possible. I truly loved it.
Rating: 4.5 TV licenses out of 5.
THE DUKE is set in 1961 when Kempton Bunton, a 60-year old taxi driver, stole Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. It was the first (and remains the only) theft in the Gallery’s history. Kempton sent ransom notes saying that he would return the painting on condition that the government agreed to provide television for free to the elderly. What happened next became the stuff of legend. Only 50 years later did the full story emerge – a startling revelation of how a good man set out to change the world and in so doing saved his son and his marriage. THE DUKE opens in theaters Friday, April 29, 2022.
ONE-LINER: In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60 year old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.