The Austin Chronicle

The Duke

Rated R, 96 min. Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Jack Bandeira, Richard McCabe, Andrew Parker, Darren Charman.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 6, 2022

For most American audiences, Roger Michell will be best known as the director of tepid celebrity vehicle Notting Hill. For British audiences, he’s a more intriguing figure, who created ripples with his TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. It was a retelling that showed the witty deviousness and social conscience of Michell, and it’s somehow echoed sweetly in The Duke, his final narrative feature completed before his death in 2021 (a documentary, Elizabeth, will be released later this month).

It’s also a reunion with Broadbent, star of his 2014 collaboration with Kureishi, Le Week-End, for a very British, very absurd crime drama laden with passion for the underdog. In 1961, Francisco de Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen from London’s National Gallery. The police were convinced that it must have been a team of crack art thieves. In fact, it was a retired bus driver and amateur playwright called Kempton Bunton (played here by the ever-affable Broadbent), who held it to ransom because of his infuriation that pensioners were forced to pay a license fee to own a television while the government paid 140,000 pounds for an ugly picture of some dead toff.

If this sounds like an exercise in quirky British historical fun, in reality, what Michell and Broadbent actually created was one last angry cri de coeur. In 2019, the bastards of the British Conservative government got rid of free TV licenses for over-75-year-olds (a benefit established in 2000 that would have made Bunton smile). Meaning that Bunton – at more than one point painted as either a buffoon, a layabout, or a Don Quixote-esque old fool spouting left-wing talking points – was simply ahead of his time.

But disguising the politics is a delightful and idiosyncratic story of an odd duck trying to do the right thing (or at least what he sees as such) while navigating a home life perpetually under the shadow of a terrible tragedy. It’s never less than touching to see Broadbent in a delicate and sweet dance with Helen Mirren as his very much long-suffering wife, Dorothy, and Whitehead and Bandeira as his sons, dopey-eyed dreamer Jackie and ne'er-do-well bad lad Kenny, respectively. Meanwhile, the powers that be bumble in the background until they can bring their might to bear in a trial that has all the hallmarks of classic British farces. As the target of their mannered ire, Bunton is part of a great tradition of British eccentrics, willing to politely take their punishment when it’s a matter of principle. As such, The Duke may superficially seem like old hat, but in its comfortable ways there’s still a strong message.

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