Review: The Duke — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

The Duke is the true story of a bullheaded, aging British taxi driver who will do just about anything to obtain free television for seniors, including pleading guilty to stealing a priceless painting.

Scene from the film "The Duke"
The Duke (Sony Pictures Classics)

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The Duke

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rated: R

Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

Stars: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren

Writers: Richard Bean, Clive Coleman

Director: Roger Michell

We all know a gadfly or two; you know, the man or woman who single-mindedly — and usually loudly — pursues some perceived injustice with a relentless stream of angry letters to the editor, indignant appearances at city hall, and even the occasional street-corner speechifying.

Generally speaking, I’m not fond of gadflies. But watching The Duke, I fell in love with Jim Broadbent’s bullheaded, aging British taxi driver who will do just about anything to accomplish his goal of obtaining free television for seniors.

And that includes pleading guilty to stealing a priceless painting from London’s National Gallery.

What’s more, it’s all true: In 1961, 60-year-old Kempton Bunton became the darling of the Fleet Street tabloids, defiantly championing his cause while standing trial for one of the century’s most daring art heists.

It may come as a surprise to many on these shores that, in the U.K., anyone with a TV must pay an annual license fee (more than $200 these days) for programming on the BBC. This infuriated Bunton, who believed the government should extend free TV to older Britons on fixed incomes.

The Duke details the most colorful chapter of Bunton’s Quixotic campaign: While he’s visiting London to plead his case in Parliament (well, in a doorway at the Parliament building), a treasured painting of the Duke of Wellington is swiped by a thief who simply entered the museum through an unlocked window. Next thing we know, Bunton is hiding the masterpiece in his modest home and writing ransom letters to the government — demanding free TV for seniors in return for the painting’s safety.

It is hard to imagine any other actor playing Bunton. Over his Oscar-winning career, Broadbent has perfected that fellow, somewhat baffled by life, who nevertheless rises to the occasion when a challenge presents itself. A human bulldozer in public, in private Bunton is a doting old man, passionately devoted to his family — especially his long-suffering wife Dorothy, who clucks at his perpetual exasperation yet tends to his frequent emotional wounds with tender care.

Helen Mirren plays Dorothy, and it seems odd to say one of the screen’s most accomplished actors is, here, a revelation. Yet here is Mirren — most recognized for playing distinguished women of aristocratic bearing — on her hands and knees as a domestic housekeeper, trudging home after a long day only to prepare another dinner for her television-addicted hubby. Mirren cannot help but remain one of the most beautiful women alive, but here, eyeglasses riding down her nose, gray hair askew, she radiates a kind patience that endows her with a whole new kind of irresistibility.

The Duke is a fitting valedictory for the late director Roger Michell, who passed away last September. As he did throughout his illustrious filmography, in The Duke Michell (Notting Hill, The Mother, Venus) again peels back the layers of British culture and class, introducing us to characters who are comfortable with the nation’s stubbornly staid ways and those chafing against it. And, as always, in the process he introduces us to characters we’re sorry to see go at the fadeout.

Speaking of which, the closing scroll relates that Bunton, who died in 1976, did not live to see the British government extend free TV to people 75 and over in 2000.

I’m doubting that would have satisfied him, anyway.

Featured image: The Duke (Sony Pictures Classics)

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