[NOTE: An official selection of the 2022 Seattle International Film Festival]
Classic British work ethic is not dead, it never went away. And the pandemic only sought to further strengthen that gumption. Though back in the early 1960s, whether one was good or bad, that may have been all they had. Enter the true-life case of Kempton Bunton, framed not just for robbery, but also for being an outspoken voice when his sort was always meant to be silent. In Roger Michell’s final film as a narrative director, The Duke, silence is no longer golden. If anything else, it’s slowly rusting at the mercy of character-driven charisma.
Kempton (Jim Broadbent) is not getting any younger. His precise sort of griping leads him to take often voiceless causes while working various odd jobs, primarily as a taxi driver and mechanic. Seeing the BBC’s persistence at annual television license fees as a predatory tactic toward the elderly, he challenges the law at every turn, capturing attention he considers warranted. But that wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) and son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) see as both distracting and embarrassing. His passion was always with playwriting, never having sold a script, but fueled by the grief of unexpected loss to keep typing.
It is difficult to say what exactly is motivating his questionable attempt to snatch a famous, and expensive painting presented at London’s National Gallery. Upon returning home, Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington escapes under his person, causing a fervor, and a fight for a ransom reward. The feds just want it back and successfully prosecute Kempton. While he sees a mere personal gain, the cash he hopes to procure would fund multiple TV licenses.
Michell (Notting Hill), with co-writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, makes it quite clear Kempton does go to court to face reprisal for stealing the painting. And the way they hover about his backstory could easily mirror that of a lawyer’s character witness. Recognizing the middle ground of his conscience, and the value of his underlying morality. And in a period in which moral value factored into anyone’s social identity in the same fashion as basic temperament, protesting could easily get one shunned by disapproval. Michell has no trouble running with that idea like it was a hyperactive compass, balancing that with a diatribe of grief, heavy on Kempton’s shoulders.
That combination often would propel more in the line of TV melodramas than theatrical features, injecting a heightened clarity to Kempton’s plight. And in turn, enabling Broadbent to be as receptive as possible. Equal parts spry yet cynical, theatrical though still serious, his work in The Duke redefines mere highwire act. Transcending his quieter work, he finds an opportune occasion to challenge the status quo, and play around with the game of closure amid varying avenues of deception and zippy hijinks. Broadbent has been like a rock in his extensive career, the character of Kempton a welcome breath of air bringing him a trifle aloft.
And while in his perception it is very slick, reminiscent of that old fashioned Brit lifestyle, aided by production designer Kristian Milsted’s (Watchmen) accurate palette, not all is cheery. The Buntons are hidden poster covers of hidden turmoil. Mirren’s Dorothy is the interjective voice of reason here, with Michell opening ample space to share her side and that of a sharp-witted Whitehead. She’s the only one qualified to cut through her husband’s complicated way of thinking, gently nudging while compressing down literally everything else. Her resentment, her distress, her concern. At a certain point, Mirren carefully unloads. Before then, it was refreshing to see a role like hers caught in lengthy crosshairs of loyalty.
The chemistry shared between this pair is reason alone to follow along with Michell’s vision through to the end. However, not every idea or character in Coleman and Bean’s script earns its equal dues for this fiendish plot. Any side hustles simply fade in the shuffle of this search for meaning. Particularly Jackie, the overconfident son who’s seen in spots trying to live his own life underneath his trouble-making father’s shadow. Looking to survive in boating with girlfriend Irene (Aimée Kelly), he’s looking from the outside of his dad’s plight, supportive yet distant. Then there’s the element of legality, with Michell only skating the surface of police intervention and the rigidity of the high court. We gain some (not much) understanding of the process, by the presence of Kempton’s lawyer (a robust Matthew Goode), his next best chance for rediscovering that small trifle of Robin Hood-esque goodwill.
Beautifully supported by a jazzy, exuberant George Fenton (The Lady in the Van) underscore, I saw no trouble being wrapped up in the inane, yet incomplete charm of The Duke. As an accidental criminal expose, a few cards remain untouched. As a touching character study, Broadbent unashamedly oversells on the low-key wit. Of course, it’s all to mask a deeper feeling of regret. That wide emotional admittance equates to a lively richness in his work and a firm affection for the story. With Mirren playing backseat driver, the dynamics shape out for a warm, smiley crowd-pleaser. A bit slight on the finer details, though still shamelessly decadent on the time, place, and mood. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up)
The Duke is currently playing on several screens in the Seattle area; rated R for language and brief sexuality; 95 minutes.