Fueled with a decidedly British flavor of true-story based dramedy, The Duke gave me exactly what I needed. Starring Oscar winners Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren as an aging couple whose marriage is rekindled after a shockingly easy turn of events, a tale this wildly unbelievable could only be true. In 1961, Goya’s portrait of The Duke of Wellington was stolen from the National Gallery in London—by a 60-year-old taxi driver. Attempts to profile the thief are laughable, and don’t seem anywhere near being accurate. The Duke is a fun and comforting film that captures an unsung event in British history; furthermore, as director Roger Michell’s final film before he passed away last year, a lasting legacy has been left behind.
The story was so absurd that no one could believe it. An old man stealing a priceless painting with minimal effort? He must have been highly trained, scheming to sell it for thousands of dollars! He had to have years of experience! The truth was far more telling. Kempton (Broadbent) believed that the elderly and veterans should be able to have free television licenses, and not have to pay a tax to view programming. He goes so far as to remove a coil from his home set so it cannot get the BBC channel in an effort to thwart the tax he is expected to pay. Despite being outspoken about social issues within his community, Kempton’s family is going through a major trauma having lost their daughter.
Kempton’s wife, Dorothy (Mirren), is a bit disappointed by Kempton’s lack of success as a playwright, whilst their son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), is on the cusp of an exciting business opportunity. Frustrated at the lack of press willing to care about his case, Kempton takes it upon himself to steal the portrait, igniting a firestorm of attention. In the courtroom being tried for the case, Kempton is very endearing, with a philosophy about life that serves to flesh out his character. The comedy hits the right notes, and the drama is touching and poignant.
The Duke is cute and straightforward, serving as a beautiful swan song for director Roger Michell. Having previously worked on films such as Changing Lanes and Notting Hill, Mitchell’s The Duke hits the sweet spot of simplistic British entertainment that is sure to delight audiences of all ages. Having two Oscar-winning actors at the center, I was hooked from the very beginning. The real figure of Kempton stood up for what he believed in, even when he made a stand-up routine out of the courtroom. Broadbent embodies his charming sensibilities to a T, and The Duke comforts the viewer as only this type of film truly can. Fans of the cast or true-crime British biopics can add another excellent entry to their collection.
The Duke screened at the 2022 Seattle International Film Festival.