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The Duke’s Heist Is All Heart and Charm

Photo by Mike Eley, BSC. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Heist films can make for fun fare. There’s a rush to trying to outwit and outsmart the onscreen criminals and their elaborate plans, a joy in seeing them outpace their pursuers. Rarely, though, do heist films offer much beyond those thrills. So for those looking for more heart than heist, more charm than crime, please, please, please watch Roger Michell’s The Duke, a clever, thought-provoking historical comedy-drama featuring what may turn out to be a career-defining performance from the always-excellent Jim Broadbent.

The Duke’s story is set in historical fact: in 1961, England was collectively mortified by the shock theft of the famous Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London—the only theft in the Gallery’s history! Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver, unpublished playwright, and outspoken advocate for the elderly, sent ransom notes for the painting, asking for better care for pensioners in exchange, and later confessed to the crime. The theft and subsequent trial—where the late Roger Michell’s last film begins before its flashbacks—are the stuff of British legend.

Jim Broadbent in THE DUKE. Photo by Mike Eley, BSC. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

On the surface, The Duke’s is a simple story, but the truth of the matter is far deeper—and more satisfying. Michell treats us to the days and weeks leading up to the heist, giving Broadbent, who plays Kempton with a feistiness and grit that can turn to an easy charm, plenty of room and time to shine. His Kempton is on a crusade for free TV for pensioners. The BBC charged a license fee for its broadcast, and only in 2000 were its signals made free for seniors 75 and over—at an estimated cost of $745 million to the government. And in 2020, the availability of those free signals for pensioners was reduced by two-thirds.

Though earnest, Kempton’s crusade is something of a folly, as is his work history. Prone to outrage, he offends bosses and defends colleagues in equal measure, only to find himself soon hitting the streets for another source of income. He can bear to tell his wife Dorothy, played by Helen Mirren, the truth only part of the time. She is, even after decades of marriage, just a little willing to believe his not-so-little white lies. The relationship between the two is full of the creases and wrinkles that age them. As the primary breadwinner, Dorothy is exhausted by her domestic-servant duties and still reeling from the long-ago death of their only daughter, Miranda.

Dorothy (Helen Mirren) and Benton Kempton (Jim Broadbent) conbverse in their kitchen in The Duke.
Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent in THE DUKE. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

With them live their two sons. Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), the younger of the two, repairs ships and dreams of riches he’ll never have. He’s Kempton’s trusted confidante. Older brother Kenny (Jack Bandeira), a ne’er-do-well petty criminal, returns to the family home with new girlfriend Pamela (Charlotte Spencer), whose presence rankles Dorothy’s sense of propriety. In the narrow confines of the Bunton household, keeping a high-profile theft and a world-famous portrait a secret is no easy task. Something—or someone—has got to give.

Jack (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira) stand in front of an aged boat.
Fionn Whitehead and Jack Bandeira in The Duke. Photo by Mike Eley, BSC. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

All of the performances are excellent, including Mirren’s—of course—as the woman stoically holding together hearth and home while ignoring her own emotional needs. Years later, she cannot tolerate any mention of her deceased daughter, as if her grieving were stalled at the stage of denial. The film, though, is really Broadbent’s, and I hope he earns the acclaim and awards he deserves here. It may be time to scooch that Best Supporting Actor Oscar over on the shelf to make room for a second, this time for lead. His is a delightful role and a wholly engaging performance. His Kempton Bunton is crotchety at one turn and charming the next, a crowd-pleasing comic and a befuddled pensioner, a man with high ideals and aspirations but who lacks the means to achieve them.

Benton Kempton (Jim Broadbent) unwraps the stolen portrait of The Duke.
Jim Broadbent in The Duke. Photo by Mike Eley, BSC. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

If The Duke were played perfectly straight, its convoluted true story would alone be enough to entice viewers, but the film is also handsomely shot, tightly edited, and cleverly scored. At times it will borrow just enough of the quick-cut style of the caper film to jostle the plot along while at others, Broadbent and Mirren are given the time and leisure to work their veteran magic.

There’s not a false step or note anywhere in The Duke’s spry 96-minute runtime. Director of Photography Mike Eley and the design team of Kristian Milsted, Dinah Collin, and Karen Hartley-Thomas recreate early-‘60s Newcastle and London with a working-class realism and attention to detail. Composer George Fenton and editor Kristina Hetherington punctuate the film with a light, sprightly touch. And the screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman moves seamlessly from the trial back to the heist, the ransom, and the trial’s outcome, while allowing plenty of room for characterization and development—and saving a few surprises for the end.

For all its technical merit, though, The Duke is far more than a well-crafted, well-acted period piece. It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing, stunner of a film, one with its own set of secrets and surprises. As it turns out, Kempton Bunton wasn’t telling the whole truth with his confession to the theft of the Goya Duke. His lies are entertaining, but the truth cuts deeper. And when it comes out, a certain kind of justice is meted.

Even the film’s minor scenes bristle with vigor and purpose. During the investigation, for instance, the London police dismiss a female profiler’s impressively detailed—and nearly perfectly accurate—assessment of one of Kempton’s crudely written all-caps ransom notes. Instead, the policemen conclude, sans any discernible rationale, that the Goya theft could be conducted only by a well-funded international cohort of professional criminals. Any woman who’s had her ideas dismissed in the workplace will surely identify, as that kind of casual sexism has hardly abated since the ‘60s.

And in a pandemic age, the very question of how a country cares for its aging population has become ever more important. Kempton Bunton’s character may be, at times, played for laughs—and there are plenty in The Duke—but his aims are sincere. Seniors deserve a quality of life that includes access to culture and the arts. During the height of the pandemic, television became even more important as a means of connection with the outside world, illustrating to everyone just how dependent the socially isolated can be on its signals. The Duke is set in the past, but its sentiments are perfectly suited to our current moment. An inspiring, rousing comedy-drama of a caper film, The Duke knows the heart is more important than the heist.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and a writer-reviewer at Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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