The wise and witty retelling about a stolen painting.
Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren both merge well with the seriousness and comical appeal in “The Duke,” written and directed by the late great Roger Michell. It’s about the theft of a stolen painting, and how society places different classes of people, all of which is set in England, 1961.
This month, alone, I’ve seen two British comedy-drama biopics that have their versatility and humanities. The first was “The Phantom of the Open,” which was about a man labeled “the world’s worst golfer,” and will be released this June; and the second is this one. Both of them don’t think older audiences are dumb; they think they deserve biopics that know when to have fun and when to be taken seriously. I was able to see the scope in them, especially when in “The Duke,” as the main character pleads “not guilty,” someone in the courtroom cheers, only to be corrected by the judge: “For those unfamiliar with court proceedings, that was the plea, not the verdict.”
Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton (1904-1976), a disabled pensioner, pleads “not guilty” to the charge of stealing the famous painting, known as Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Before that, he refuses to buy a license to watch TV, loses his job as a taxi driver, and wants to send a play script to the BBC about social injustice. When the painting is stolen, he holds it ransom to help the unfortunate, only to find out about some complications along the way. That’s when Matthew Goode comes in as his barrister Jeremy Hutchinson.
Mirren plays his hardworking wife Dorothy who often criticizes him for his optimism which doesn’t work out, while grieving for the loss of their daughter who was killed in a bicycle accident. And when she finds out about the painting, she calls him “a mad man.”
They both have two son-the would-be shipbuilder Jackie (Fionn Whitehead from “Dunkirk”) and the construction worker Kenny (Jack Bandeira). Jackie helps his dad hide the stolen painting, while Kenny is involved with some smaller illegal activities.
“The Duke” is a little confusing at times, but it does provide us with the convictions and versatility, in regards to Kempton’s activism, ideas, and arrests. Broadbent is able to match the scope and mannerisms without hamming things up. He knows when to be comical and when to be serious, and that’s how he fits into the role.
Mirren also delivers a unique performance, because of how she shifts in tones, and acts like she should be the voice reasoning. You know when acclaimed actresses are able to play supporting characters trying to talk some sense in the lead character, but without relying on Oscar attention.
And Whitehead commits to his role as Jackie, and balances the humor and drama with his age, without seeming routine. Yes, he has to told some obligatory parent-to-son lines, but he’s still able to raise to the occasion without pushing his luck.
A twist in the case has already been revealed for those of you who know about this true story. I didn’t know about this case, so I was interested to find out the real culprit, who happens to be Jackie. Actually, in real life, his name was John. I remember being criticized for telling the crimes of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” as a “spoiler alert.” Both these films are based on real events, so don’t blame me. Besides, he admitted to the theft in 1969.
But “The Duke” isn’t supposed to be a mystery film; it’s supposed to be a fun character study with the characters, who are either filled with optimism or responsibilities. And when we think of Roger Michell, we should always remember him for his movies, including “Notting Hill,” “Venus,” “Le Week-End,” and “My Cousin Rachel.” “The Duke” is a worthy final chapter to his movie career.
In Select Theaters This Friday