Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 22.
“The Duke” is a very British heist movie, a true-crime caper with no guns, no car chases, toad in the hole for dinner, and Gracie Fields warbling a song called “A Nice Cup of Tea” on the soundtrack. It’s so British, in fact, that its central character is named Kempton Bunton, but at least he has the good grace to joke about it. The film’s director is Roger Michell, best known for “Notting Hill,” and who recently made the luvvie love-in documentary, “Tea with the Dames.” The cast boasts two of the UK’s national treasures, Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. If you suspect “The Duke” is on the cozy and nostalgic side of the cinematic spectrum, you might be right.
But it’s such an expertly crafted and highly polished piece of warmhearted escapism that it’s difficult to resist. This is the kind of British film with international appeal: the venerable cast, genial tone, inspirational story, and mischievous English eccentricity are all present and correct. Settle in, preferably with a nice cup of tea to hand, and enjoy.
Set in 1961, “The Duke” tells the bizarre, stranger-than-fiction tale of the aforementioned Bunton, a splendid addition to Broadbent’s collection of endearing bumblers. Impressively understated and crotchety, Mirren goes full-dowdy as his long-suffering wife, Dolly, who scrubs floors for her posh but kindly boss (Anna Maxwell Martin) while 60-something Kempton gets fired from job after job for talking too much. His real passion is writing scripts to send to the BBC, even though he has a Snoopy-rivaling stack of rejection letters to show for it.
His latest work, “Susan Christ,” reimagines Jesus as a woman. He is also a political campaigner who believes that pensioners should have free television licenses (still a hot topic in British politics, five decades on). Television is the poor man’s cure for loneliness, he argues, but it could be that he just doesn’t fancy paying: this is a man barred from his local pub for pinching the toilet paper. What gives the film its edge is that Bunton is both a bumptious, selfish oddball, and someone who genuinely cares about injustice. He wants to help society at large, but he can be a nightmare for Dolly and their loyal son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). Typically, it’s a very British combination.
When Bunton hears that the National Gallery has paid the colossal sum of £160,000 for a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington — a sum that might just about pay for the picture frame today — he decides to take the train from Newcastle to London, steal the painting, and spend the ransom on license fees for war veterans. The nonexistent security arrangements allow him to pull off the heist without a hitch, thus leading to lots of amusing, mildly satirical scenes where embarrassed police officials announce they are on the lookout for a highly trained, well-organized criminal gang — probably Italians. If the British establishment weren’t quite so snobbish and jingoistic, the film suggests, they might not have been so off the mark.
But don’t expect anything too hard-hitting. Michell announces in the opening minutes that he is going to have fun with the cracking premise. Bunton is first seen protesting his innocence in the dock of the Old Bailey before the action jumps back six months, and we get some snazzy split screens and swinging jazz. For all the smoky factory chimneys and the crumbling red-brick terraces, Michell isn’t going to wallow in the kitchen-sink gloom of the characters’ lives. The colors are rich, the clothing is comfy, and the screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman sparkles with wit, giving even the smallest characters (notably a foul-mouthed taxi-firm boss) their moment to shine. American audiences might need subtitles to help them decipher the local dialect, but, once they do, they will get more laughs than most films can offer.
“The Duke” doesn’t stumble until it starts to fall for Bunton’s own rhetoric. In the later scenes, he becomes not just a modern-day Robin Hood but an anti-racist champion and a utopian philosopher. The film also makes the tenuous, sentimental case that all of his crimes and misdemeanors are a reaction to the death of his teenage daughter a decade earlier. Viewers might be less sympathetic than the cheering crowd in the Old Bailey’s public gallery. Having put so much time and effort into presenting Bunton as a loudmouthed, troublemaking crank, there was no need for “The Duke” to claim that he was a saint, as well. Luckily, for most of this cheerful comedy, he is a loudmouthed, troublemaking crank, and all the more lovable for it.
“The Duke” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.