Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Roger Michell
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Matthew Goode, Fionn Whitehead, James Wilby.
Another film that proves that fact is often stranger than fiction.
In 1961, Kempton Bunton (played here by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent), an eccentric 60-year-old taxi driver, stole a valuable Goya masterpiece from the National Gallery of London. Incensed that the British government had spent £140,000 on purchasing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, Kempton stole the painting. He sent ransom notes to the authorities saying that he would return the painting if the government promised to invest more money and resources for the care of the elderly. Kempton was driven by his belief that the government’s television license payment was wrong – he flatly refused to watch the BBC – and that the elderly and war veterans deserved to have their television for free. Hard as it is to believe, it wasn’t until 2000 that the government finally relaxed the compulsory license requirements. Bunton was also unable to hold down a job for long because of his interest in fighting social causes, much to the frustration of his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, who cleaned houses to bring in extra money.
When Kempton returned the painting to the gallery he was arrested and put on trial for grand larceny. He used the trial to put forward his anti-tv tax arguments and he charmed the jury. This is something of a feel good film, but it really only comes alive during the trial sequences as Kempton charms and beguiles the court with his humour and genial nature and colourful stories. The courtroom sequences are a highlight of the film, and Broadbent shines here.
The Duke is based on a true story and has been written by award winning playwright Richard Bean and former lawyer Clive Coleman (who collaborated on plays such as Great Britain, Young Marx, etc), although one suspects that the pair have taken some liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. The film also touches on some universal themes such as class, social justice, inequality, etc.
Broadbent is superb here with a genial, larger than life presence as the eccentric Kempton, and he makes him a sympathetic character, a modern day Robin Hood type. The normally glamourous and stylish Helen Mirren goes for a more dowdy look here as Kempton’s long suffering wife Dorothy, with her unflattering plain cardigans and grey dress sense, her grey hair, plain glasses and slouched posture. The pair of veterans develop a nice odd couple dynamic, although Mirren is very much a supporting role here. Matthew Goode registers strongly as Jeremy Hutchinson, Kempton’s lawyer, and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk, etc) brings energy to his role as Bunton’s son Jackie.
Sadly, this was also one of the final films directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill, etc) before his death, but he maintains a lively enough pace throughout that recalls those classic comedies from the Ealing Studios. The film boasts some superb production values from Kristian Milsted that capture the period. Michell has also incorporated some archival footage into the film which further enhances the period authenticity.
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