If the improbably named Kempton Bunton hadn’t really lived, Ealing Studios would probably have written him into existence. A 60-year-old working-class Newcastle gent with a cheeky sense of humor and a cheerily rabble-rousing spirit, who just happened to be implicated in a headline-making London art heist, he was born to be the hero of a jaunty, crowd-pleasing British comedy caper. 44 years after his death, that has materialized in “The Duke,” and while the Ealing team might have made a more raucous farce out of it, Roger Michell’s film is a perfectly nimble, kind-hearted bit of teatime entertainment — ideally tailored to Jim Broadbent in one of his most appealing big-screen roles.
The pairing of Broadbent with Helen Mirren, warmly weary if a bit under-tested as Bunton’s salt-of-the-earth wife Dorothy, will make “The Duke” a major attraction to ill-served mature audiences when distributor Pathé opens the film in the U.K. (A full-scale theatrical release, whenever that seems feasible, would be fitting: Streaming platforms would risk cutting out a substantial portion of its built-in “gray pound” audience.) Outside its rainy native isles, meanwhile, “The Duke” should connect with a broad swath of viewers hungry for gently grown-up filmmaking. Warmly received at its Venice out-of-competition premiere, the film has a bit more commercial oomph than “Le Week-End,” Michell’s previous collaboration with Broadbent, but the two aren’t many lanes apart.
If it’s also easy to imagine Bunton’s story playing out as a Sunday-night BBC television drama, that observation might have tickled the man himself, given that it’s with the BBC that his skirmishes with the law began in the first place. We meet him in 1961, near retirement age but still hopping haphazardly between blue-collar jobs, living with the perennially exasperated Dorothy and his youngest son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) in a cramped, peeling Newcastle row house. Its small, sepia-toned rooms are overcluttered with furniture and unarticulated grief: The Buntons’ eldest child Marian died as a teenager, and try as he might, Bunton hasn’t coaxed his wife to talk about the loss in 13 years.
Getting by on a shoestring, they’re regularly pestered by collectors for their television licence fee — a tax paid to the public broadcaster from which Bunton insists he should be exempt, given that his TV doesn’t receive a BBC signal. The authorities are unpersuaded; cue a short prison spell. On his release, to the despair of his straight-and-narrow wife, he launches an impassioned one-man campaign to abolish the licence fee for senior citizens — even heading to London to lobby Parliament, with predictably glum results. The government and media care “more about art than charity,” he vents, sneering at the headline news of the day: the National Gallery’s £140,000 purchase of Goya’s painting “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.”
How this passing frustration escalates into a startlingly simple theft of the painting in question is the neatest trick of a compact screenplay by first-time feature writers Richard Bean (the playwright behind Broadway hit “One Man, Two Guvnors”) and Clive Coleman. Where most heist films concentrate extensively on the planning of the job, “The Duke” blithely breaks this rule, depicting the theft itself as all but a throwaway whim, and milking rather more tension and comedy out of Bunton and Jackie’s shambolic attempts to conceal the booty from the oblivious Dorothy, as well as the eccentric legal proceedings that ensue when their plan goes awry. There’s method in this surprising order of things, though it’d undo a number of the film’s breezy, bittersweet pleasures to say much more.
In their interpretation of Bunton, the writers have updated the stock figure of the cuddly, bumbling English everyman with a streak of progressive activist spirit: He chides his wife for her compliance with conservative authorities, stands up for persecuted minorities at work, and drops Gandhi quotes and ahead-of-his-time slogans like “speak truth to power” into everyday conversation. Whether entirely true to the subject or otherwise, the film’s political-mindedness is bracing. The Tory party is jeeringly dismissed by Jackie in conversation, while Bunton’s self-described Robin Hood mission to hold the painting ransom — in return for funds he can redistribute to the needy — stops just short of quoting Labour Party’s contemporary “for the many, not the few” rhetoric.
If “The Duke” still lands closer to Richard Curtis than Ken Loach on the tonal spectrum, its quietly raised fist does cut through the more cloying notes of its cozy retro Englishness. Though it doesn’t skirt over the cruel prejudices of the era, the film still embraces a kind of tannin-stained midcentury nostalgia, where disparate classes unite in a rebellious, right-on courtroom singalong to “Jerusalem,” and an elderly couple repairs an argument with a kitchen dance to Gracie Fields’ “A Nice Cup of Tea.” Even Mike Eley’s attractively dusky lensing looks a bit like someone spilled a cup of the brown stuff over the lens and forgot to mop it up, while editor Kristina Hetherington’s spry, split-screen-reliant editing and George Fenton’s busy, brassy score also go heavy on throwback mannerisms.
If the filmmaking is occasionally a tad too cute, Broadbent and Mirren — two fine actors who can, under the wrong direction, lean into fussiness — do well to keep things restrained. Together, they convincingly play an unspoken, stiff-upper-lipped distance in their characters’ marriage that fills in some of the script’s gaps. Broadbent gives Bunton’s scrappy, upbeat spirit the right undertow of sorrow and been-to-the-brink desperation, and if a few too many of Mirren’s scenes simply require her to find fresh ways of tut-tutting, her gradual thaw to her husband’s cause is finely delineated and moving. “The Duke” is a romp first and foremost: Michell’s merry direction makes sure of that. But its stars put a small, dignified lump in its throat.