For decades the Brits have seemingly cornered the market on films about eccentrics. real and imagined; they typically produce entertaining cinema around such unconventional folks with equal parts humor and poignancy. With Kempton Bunton, the Don Quixote of 1961 Newcastle, “The Duke” adds another entertaining movie to that character-fueled canon.
Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is the voice crying in the wilderness of post-World War II Britain for better treatment of pensioners and war veterans. His perpetual campaign for the downtrodden and forgotten is, at the time the film is set, centered on the mandatory television license fee required of anyone owning a TV set in the United Kingdom (a practice that still funds the BBC).
His activism has resulted more than once in incarceration, and between his protests and prolific (but commercially unsuccessful) playwrighting his long suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) has basically reached breaking point. Her husband promises to change his ways, but that promise seems broken quite soon when Kempton finds himself at the center of a headline-screaming story about the theft of Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery (so far the only time that august place has had a painting stolen since it opened in 1824).
Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s sweet-natured and nimble script largely encompasses the true story that followed, including Bunton’s trial and its aftermath. That doesn’t mean it’s historically accurate in all respects, of course: the real story, should you choose to look for it, is readily available in various online articles. But in just 96 minutes we get a vivid portrait of the social divisions and personal conflicts – such as a family tragedy that drives much of Kempton’s thoughts and feelings – that led to a case which ultimately changed British law.
Roger Michel’s direction makes the most of location and the script’s fast pacing, but it’s the performances of the cast that make this more than a celluloid anecdote. Broadbent, Mirren, Fionn Whitehead as Kempton and Dorothy’s son Jackie, Anna Maxwell Martin as Dorothy’s employer and Matthew Goode as Kempton’s defense barrister are all very believable and likeable. They ennoble “The Duke” with their work, and make the film more pleasing than it might otherwise have been.
“The Duke” opens Friday (May 6) in Nashville at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 and in Franklin at AMC Thoroughbred 20. It’s rated R for language and brief sexuality by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) of the Motion Picture Association (MPA). Click here for more info and tickets to showings at those theaters and others elsewhere.