If the rampant bloodiness of The Northman and the hyperkineticism of Everything Everywhere All At Once don’t strike your fancy you would do well to check out The Duke, an unmistakably British import starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. Its quiet charm stakes a claim for mature viewers but don’t mistake “offbeat” for “bland.” There’s nothing banal or predictable about this lighthearted tale, which is based on a true story.
Its protagonist is a free-thinking fellow named Kempton Bunton (Broadbent) who made history when he stole a valuable Goya painting from the National Gallery of Art in London. As portrayed here, his motivation is disarmingly simple: he resents the fact that a government man repeatedly shows up at his door demanding that he pay his television tax (which is how our British cousins fund the BBC). Since his TV doesn’t receive Auntie Beeb, he refuses. In fact, he thinks the service ought to be offered free of charge to older citizens. The government doesn’t take kindly to his protest, which impels Bunton to become a bit of a rabble rouser.
Broadbent was born to play this kind of character, who has swallowed many bitter pills in his life. The loss of a daughter has driven a wedge between him and his wife (Mirren), who can’t bear to talk about it even after thirteen years. His grown son (Fionn Whitehead) becomes his literal partner-in-crime when he hatches a seemingly ridiculous robbery scheme.
Under Roger Michell’s direction, Broadbent, Mirren and the other pros on hand (including Matthew Goode, who plays Robert Evans in the upcoming miniseries The Offer) get the most out of every turn of the screenplay, credited to Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. Sorry to say this was Michell’s final film; he died last September.
The British used to specialize in this sort of low-key comedy, which has fallen out of fashion. Thank goodness someone saw fit to tell this story without pummeling its points across. The Duke respects its audience too much for that.
The Duke is now playing in theaters, where you may find yourself sitting amongst a number of like-minded moviegoers. That’s an experience well worth having.