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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Review: ‘The Duke’ delivers a sweet message: I am you, and you are me

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

The quirky and little-known true story – make that the quirky and little-known true-ish story – “The Duke,” based on the 1961 theft of Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London, features delightful performances by Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, both of whom help ground this strenuously heartwarming film in something a little more solid than the ether in which it otherwise seems to be set. Although the action, for the most part, takes place in gritty, working-class Newcastle, and the events it depicts are loosely based on fact, “The Duke” exists in a kind of twee parallel universe of low stakes and charming eccentricity.

Make that one charming, if irascible eccentric in particular: Broadbent’s Kempton Bunton, an underemployed curmudgeon on a government pension who spends most of his time writing unpublished plays and angry letters to the editor about the unfairness of TV licenses for retirees on a fixed income. In England, people pay a sort of tax for the privilege of watching a commercial-free BBC. One protest sign shown in the film reads “Free TV for the OAP,” or old-age pensioner. When Kempton learns the British government has just forked over 140,000 pounds to keep Goya’s early 19th century work, which he doesn’t even like, from being purchased by a U.S. collector, Kempton decides – well, better to let the film work its magic, which includes a couple of mild plot twists.

Suffice it to say the Goya turns up one day under the Buntons’ roof, with the protagonist and his son Jackie (an appealingly indulgent Fionn Whitehead) arguing about not just how to hide it from Kempton’s wife, Dorothy (a decidedly less indulgent – and almost unrecognizable – Mirren), but what to do with it. The latter question is resolved by Kempton’s anonymous announcement to a newspaper that he intends to hold the painted wooden panel for ransom, so to speak, which he will then distribute to the common man. This Robin Hood-adjacent message is leaned on by director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) and his writers (Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) with a light touch, bringing a not-so-terribly-serious approach to the film’s populist themes of social justice and income inequality.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Dorothy’s employer, an upper-crusty woman of liberal leaning for whom Dorothy works as a maid. The timeline of the actual incident is compressed from years to months – the quicker to get around to the court case that ensues when Kempton is arrested. Kempton’s lawyer, played by a wryly bemused Matthew Goode, humors his client by arguing that the Goya wasn’t stolen so much as borrowed. Still, although a good portion of the film is taken up by the trial, “The Duke” is no courtroom drama.

The larger moral of the story, which delivers only glancing blows against ethnic bigotry, classism and the inescapable cycle of poverty, while touching on a tender backstory of grief and loss, is quite simple: I am you, and you are me. That altruistic mantra – one that reminds us of our common humanity – is delivered on the stand, eloquently, in a sweet package made sweeter by two of England’s finest actors.