“Shock? Yes, I’m shocked! There’s a stolen masterpiece in my wardrobe!”
There’s always an excitement that comes with films dealing with crime in the art world. I’m not sure if it’s the elaborate plotting that’s required to pull off such a job or the tantalizing idea of getting your hands on a priceless piece of work that’s so heavily guarded and fiercely adored the world over. Whatever the main reason is, the sort of madcap quality that exists throughout art heist movies continues to draw audiences in. That certainly seems to be what’s being sold as the main hook for The Duke, which sells the promise of a fun London-set art caper starring two of Britain’s finest actors. What’s the heist in question like? How does it stand up to ones from before? Well, it’s difficult to say since not only is the heist in The Duke somewhat slight, but it’s actually a means to something deeper.
Set in northern England during the 1960s, The Duke tells the true story of a working-class man named Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), whose progressive ideals and playwright ambitions often result in unpaid bills, a string of nothing jobs, and even jail time, all to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) and their son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). Fed up with living the blue-collar life, Kempton hatches a plan that will solve everything for him and his family: he will steal the Goya painting of The Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London and hold it for ransom.
Almost from the moment it begins, a high-spirited exuberance seems to guide The Duke, setting the stage for a group of characters who live in a world where good fortune is sparse, but where hope is not completely dead. There’s a true “spring in its step” quality to it all in the pacing, music, dialogue, and especially in the film’s main character. Kempton is a middle-aged man who has lived his life as a flawed individual, but also a proud one. Easily described as a lovable scoundrel, Kempton is bad with money, sometimes does things he shouldn’t, and spends more time in the clouds than anyone his age ought to.
But there’s something undeniably aspirational about The Duke’s protagonist as well. Kempton is someone who refuses to accept society the way that it is and believes he has the power to cure its ills through the plays he writes and the actions he takes. A stirring scene in a factory break room where he stands up for a Pakistani coworker whose being denied a full break by a racist boss results in Kepmton being fired. Even if his some of actions aren’t always admirable (and sometimes venture into the criminal), his beliefs and inherent gusto towards life certainly are.
Kempton’s mix of optimism and energy in many ways gives his family grief while in a roundabout sense, also serves as the glue holding them together. For Jackie, his father is a contradiction, a man who both frustrates and inspires him. When the painting turns up in their home, Jackie is the only one his father trusts with it as the two work to keep the priceless piece of art a secret from Dorothy until a ransom can be collected, which Kempton will use to help right many of the wrongs he sees around him in his working-class town.
When The Duke turns its focus to Dorothy, the mechanics of the plot come a distant second to the people on the screen. The Duke eventually becomes a portrait of a broken family with a broken woman at the heart of the unit. This is a family where every member is just trying to exist the best way that they can without ever giving up on each other in the face of hardship and the unacknowledged grief of the past. Here, a somber side of the film emerges, allowing The Duke to become a real human experience filled with laughter and tears. A scene showing Kempton and Dorothy dancing in the kitchen after he’s gotten a new job beautifully shows how the magic between them can’t ever be diminished, regardless of what happens in their lives.
The Duke couldn’t have asked for finer leads than Broadbent and Mirren. The two have such a lived-in believability as Kempton and Dorothy and their chemistry helps the audience easily imagine the many years they have shared together. Mirren is (unsurprisingly) fantastic, alternating between sassy and vulnerable while Broadbent enjoys what could very well be a career-best turn that’s quite possibly the culmination of a career already filled with plenty of milestones. Apart from Broadbent and Mirren, praise needs to go to Whitehead, whose role isn’t the flashiest but carries more subtle depth that comes through thanks to the young actor’s ever-evolving talent.
Sadly, The Duke was director Roger Michell’s last film before passing away in late 2021, leaving behind a collection of underrated titles. If each one of the films he made was different than the last, they all shared his unique enthusiasm and affection for the art of filmmaking. The specific humor of Morning Glory, the gothic romance of My Cousin Rachel, and the elegiac quality of Blackbird all proved touching and compelling in ways you wouldn’t readily expect them to. As a final effort, The Duke seems to be the perfect swan song for the director as it is a film brimming with the kinds of dreams and possibilities that seemed to flow through all his work.