The Duke is a biography; a family drama; a coming-of-age story and an art heist. All four threads are stitched together by a commentary on 60s working class Britain. Despite a few hitches, it works like a charm.
This film is a true story about Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), who lives with his wife, Dolly (Helen Mirren) and son, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead). While Dolly works her fingers to the bone, Kempton has a more casual approach to employment.
He treats his low-paying jobs with distain so he can conserve his energy for the more pressing issue of becoming the next Robin Hood. He’s a man with an overwhelming sense of justice, launching campaign after campaign in his efforts to help society’s poorest.
His latest crusade is to lobby the government to pay for pensioners’ BBC TV license, which many can’t afford. But despite stalwart efforts, he makes zero progress. He’s still deciding on his next step when he learns that the government has paid £140K for a portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Kempton is incensed. By the time he’s calculated how many TV licenses all that money could have bought, his campaign is resurrected.
There could be no better depiction of a working class eccentric than that honed by Broadbent, but it’s Mirren who kidnaps the screen. She’s unrecognizable as the long suffering battleaxe, Mrs. Bunton, and clearly relishes her role as Newcastle’s Queen Char.* Despite limited power, she shoulders the weight of her erring husband and son with aplomb. And if she doesn’t get her way, she settles for impaling them with her acerbic tongue.
As charming as this story is, it takes a long time to find its stride. While Kempton’s skirmishes are fun, it’s clear from the start that he’s a laggard and has no plans to change. It therefore risks the audience thinking the story has nowhere to go when that same message is repeated over and over. It also takes time away from the laying down of clues that lead to the unexpected twist that comes at the end. This twist, while welcome, fails to resonate as it should because so little time is spent on its set-up Truth might be stranger than fiction, but strange generally needs to be explained.
Kempton died in 1976, so never witnessed the government’s decision 24 years later to pay for the TV license of seniors over the age of 75. It was a belated but greatly appreciated gift to those in need. Although this grand gesture is not recognized as Kempton’s legacy, there are a number of Brits who might think otherwise. Either way, it’s clear Kempton wasn’t just a good guy. He was a visionary who possessed such a pervading sense of justice that it transcended all else. The formidable Dolly couldn’t have had a more deserving hero, even if she’d married the Duke himself.
Streaming now on Roku
Publicity by Block-Korenbrut Public Relations
Distributed by Sony Picture Classics