In 1961, England’s National Gallery paid 140,000 pounds for a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington. That would be $4.2 million in today’s money. Not a bad price, all things considered.
Kempton Bunton — do names come any better? — felt otherwise. Since “The Duke” is based on a true story, the screenwriters can’t take credit for Bunton’s name. That would go to his parents. Once he was accused of stealing the painting, Bunton would become three parts media sensation to two parts folk hero.
Roger Michel, who died in September, directed “The Duke.” Michel had an appealingly wayward filmography: “Notting Hill” (1999), “Venus” (2005), “Hyde Park on the Hudson” (2012), “Tea With the Dames” (2018). “The Duke” is appealing and wayward, too, if also given to both slickness (split screens? really?) and more than a dollop of sentimentality.
A radical eccentric, Bunton lived in the north of England. He drove a taxi and worked in a bakery, sort of. Mainly, he wrote plays, which went unperformed, and publicly protested against Britain’s television-licensing fee. Then as now, the British Broadcasting Corporation did not run ads, funding itself through an annual fee paid by every television-owning household. Think of it as being the auto-excise tax you pay, but with the proceeds used as dedicated funding for broadcast programming.
As played very well by Jim Broadbent, Bunton is both charming and obtuse. He’s the sort of person you smile at when you see across the street, then flee once he comes over and starts talking to you. His wife bears the brunt of that charm and obtuseness. Dolly Bunton works as a charwoman and baby sitter to support the household. This must be the only movie in Helen Mirren’s filmography in which she can be seen scrubbing a toilet. “Kitchen-sink drama,” of which genre “The Duke” has some elements, takes on a whole new meaning.
Wearing a frequent scowl and glasses even uglier than Broadbent’s, Mirren more than holds up her end. The glasses are an instance of the many nice period touches, from the occasional delivery horse in the street to the floral wallpaper chez Bunton. It’s a pleasure watching Broadbent and Mirren share the screen. That’s true even when they bicker, which they frequently do.
Fionn Whitehead (”Dunkirk”), as one of the Buntons’ two grown sons, capably puts up with all the arguing. Even better is Matthew Goode. He’s the picture of genteel suavity as Kempton’s defense attorney. You can see why he was cast as Antony Armstrong-Jones in “The Crown.”
Mirren, you will recall, won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth. If her toilet-scrubbing here is one example of acting-career dissonance, Goode offers another. In “The Offer,” the new Paramount+ miniseries about the making of “The Godfather,” he plays the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans. The kid definitely stays in the picture.
Directed by Roger Michel. Written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. Starring Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. R (language and brief sexuality — which is ridiculous; now if Bunton had used semiautomatic weapons in the theft, that just would be PG-13)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.