REVIEW: ‘The Duke’ is charming, understated and downright enjoyable

The British make the most interesting criminals. From Jack the Ripper to John Christie, the demon who murdered dozens of girls and locked them in the walls of his townhouse at 10 Rillington Place, the creeps and goons in Scotland Yard’s records have beaten us to cinematographic material, ten against one . The crime so skillfully committed in 1961 by Kempton Bunton, the grumpy old taxi driver who remains the only thief in history to successfully steal a work of art from the National Gallery in London, is not so much heinous as ‘heroic. Applause-worthy enough, in fact, to inspire the delightful new film The Duke, starring the wonderful British actor Jim Broadbent as the funny, scheming miscreant who believes crime is justified if it serves a greater purpose, and the great Helen Mirren as his endlessly exasperated wife. It’s a charming, low-key, and thoroughly enjoyable romp about how ordinary people can do extraordinary things that seems doubly surprising because, while sounding implausible, it also happens to be absolutely true.


THE DUKE ★★★
(3/4 stars)
Directed by: Roger Michel
With : Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Charlotte Spencer
Operating time: 1 hour 36 minutes


Mr Bunton, a longtime campaigner for older people’s rights, was particularly angered by a UK government licensing requirement that required older people to pay a fee to own a TV. When he heard of the National Gallery’s acquisition of a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington worth £140,000, he launched a campaign to get free television for elderly citizens like himself and hatched a plan to travel from his mundane apartment in Newcastle, a dreary, working-class town in the north, to the world-famous and (supposedly) impenetrable art gallery, steal the Goya and hold him hostage until let the ransom money from the stolen painting put pressure on the government to make TV a privilege, free for all. How he did the deed against impossible odds and nearly got away with it is the most interesting part of the film as it chronicles the heist, the arrest, the trial and the lives of everyone involved, including including his son Jacky (Fionn Whitehead), who helps him hide the priceless artwork in a closet, his eldest son Kenny (Jack Bandeira) and Kenny’s brash girlfriend Pammy (Charlotte Spencer), who throws a Fold in the mission by finding the masterpiece hidden in the cabinet and demanding to split the reward. But the person most affected in many ways is Dorothy, Bunton’s grumpy, cynical and patient wife, played by the always surprising Helen Mirren. Renowned for playing distinguished members of royalty and women of aristocratic race, she is, in this incarnation, a housekeeper with wrinkles, liver spots, and principles, dedicated to keeping her impoverished family solvent and honest. Follow his every move and you’ll believe you’re really inside the Bunton family’s humble residence, watching them eat his meals of cabbage and crusts, served with naturalism and punctuated by the lively music hall songs and songs of the time, unaware that her husband sends notes to the various Fleet Street newspapers. Mr Broadbent is haughty, goofy and funny at the same time playing a budding media star, and Ms Mirren matches every move in her frustrated attempts to settle Britain’s class differences. Example: When Kenny brings home his vulgar girlfriend Pammy, Dorothy raises an eyebrow:

“So, Pamela, what is your current family situation? »

“Let him rest, mom.”

“It’s wrong that you both live in sin under our roof.”

” What’s the matter with you ? You will then vote for Tory.

When his eventual arrest becomes inevitable, the tabloids follow him to court, where his eccentricity charms the press, prosecutors, jury and even the judge. With logic that makes sense, he makes everyone think twice, including the government (“Every time an old pensioner is cut off from the British population, the nation becomes smaller,” he tells the on the witness stand, adding that with the £400,000 they are paying for the Duke’s painting, they ‘could pay 3,500 TV licenses a year and reconnect with all those old people’.’No more questions,’ says lawyer of the defense.

The Duke is the latest film from director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), from a screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. He specialized in civilized films of grace and good humor as only the British can make, and died a few short weeks after making this one. Unfortunately, he never saw the finished print. Nor did the real Kempton Bunton live to see his extravagant scheme result in a law making television free for all English people over 75. Who said crime doesn’t pay?


Observer reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

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