It’s always the quiet ones…Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is an unassuming fellow, the kind of man you could stand at a bus-stop with and never notice. He lives in Newcastle, is married to Dorothy (Helen Mirren) and the big passion of his life seems to be outsmarting the BBC licence detectors, who are keen to see him purchase a licence for his television. Bunton can afford a licence, but objects out of principle; why should the government spend £140,000 on a painting to hang in a London art gallery when the same money could pay for licences for WWII veterans?
The year is 1961, and director Roger Mitchell’s final film is based on a true story; facts may be exaggerated, but Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s script makes a virtue of referencing courtroom proceedings. Bunton’s desire to publicise his cause leads him to hold the painting in question, Goya’s The Duke, as a hostage, and his stand provokes the authorities to launch a manhunt that causes Dorothy no end of social anxiety. Bunton has a tragedy in his past, creating a burden that he and Dorothy have not had the opportunity to excise; will the lovable eccentric Bunton, his wife and son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) be made to feel the full force of the law?
The Duke is a comedy, but a comedy with some heart; there’s no real villains here, and even Bunton’s snooty lawyer Jeremy Hutchinson (Matthew Goode) gains in understanding and empathy for the unlikely ransom demander. While the story is slight, Bunton’s home-spun, individualistic philosophy has its day in court, and once articulated, can’t be forgotten. This all plays nicely into Broadbent’s unparalleled skill in playing downtrodden characters, and Mirren is always a welcome presence, with a care-worn, housekeeper’s persona that hides a steely reserve and family loyalty.
The Duke is a clever film that revolves around the narrative sleight of hand that you might notice even from the trailer, but won’t fully understand until the courtroom finale. It’s a spry and entertainingly simple British film that deserves an audience; the grey pound should embrace it even without awards attention, but there’s something refreshing about a small film like this that, against the odds, makes a salient point, much like Bunton himself.
In UK cinemas from Feb 22nd 2022. Thanks to Pathe for advance access.