Film/Television Editor, Copy Editor Devin D. O'Leary served as film/television editor at Weekly Alibi for 28 years. He wrote and produced four feature films here in New Mexico and has been the booker/host of Midnight Movie Madness screenings at Guild Cinema for 13 years.

2GN4J7A UK. Jim Broadbent in the (C)Pathe UK new movie: The Duke (2021). Plot: Film adaptation of the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical about Evan Hansen, a high school senior with Social Anxiety disorder and his journey of self-discovery and acceptance following the suicide of a fellow classmate. Ref: LMK106-J7341-190921 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets. pictures@lmkmedia.com

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Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Moulin Rouge!, Gangs of New York) adds to his long list of cinematic personas that of Kempton Bunton, a charming old troublemaker who put the British justice system in a bit of a sticky wicket when he stole an extravagantly expensive painting of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery back in 1961.

In the low-key charmer The Duke, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus, My Cousin Rachel) hones in on the “who” and “why” of the true-life story behind the historical footnote that was Mr. Bunton’s all-too-brief career in art theft. Broadbent puts a twinkle in his eye and plays Bunton as a lovable old dreamer—a failed playwright, an armchair socialist and an old-school rabble-rouser deeply concerned with the rights of the working class (a position that gets him fired from a string of jobs). Seems that Kempton’s latest crusade is free television for old age pensioners. You see, in England, TV is government controlled, and shows are paid for by the mandatory purchase of television licenses. It seems like an awfully small hill to die on. But our crusading hero views television as a godsend, a welcome companion for England’s elderly. And it is these aging, frequently homebound citizens who are least able to pay their yearly taxes. So when the TV police come knocking, Kempton makes a stand—much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren).

After another brief but noble stint in jail for failure to pay his television fees, Kempton takes a particular interest in news stories about the National Gallery’s recent purchase of a painting by Francisco de Goya. Some £140,000 ($390,000) were shelled out to keep Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from leaving England. Why, the money the British government squandered on that rather stolid headshot of some English aristocrat could have supported thousands of television licenses! It’s not long, of course, before the headline-grabbing painting in question has gone missing and Kempton—with the game assistance of his young son (Fionn Whitehead)—is trying to figure out how to hide the stolen treasure from Mrs. Bunton and how to leverage his new acquisiton.

Broadbent is clearly chuffed to have such a cheeky lead role. The bulk of his time is spent in court, defending his “borrowing” of the painting in a scheme worthy of fellow English folk hero Robin Hood (a TV show he is seen, none too subtly, watching earlier in the film). Kempton’s salty courtroom commentary on class consciousness and English society make him something of a pop cultural icon in his mid-century time slot. And though it’s not exactly Erin Brockovich or Norma Rae in its level of deep social impact, it does make for a genial, Frank Capra-esque, root-for-the-underdog tale.

Helen Mirren receives less screentime but makes the most of it, projecting a sense of exasperation mixed with profound love. A largely unspoken backstory about the Buntons’ deceased daughter adds a bit of emotional heft to the relationship between husband and wife. Matthew Goode (Watchmen, “Downton Abbey,” “A Discovery of Witches”) also makes an impression as Kempton’s mostly amused barrister.

The Duke isn’t Michell’s most indelible effort. It’s certainly no heart-pumping heist film like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven. Nor is it a realistic kitchen sink drama à la Ken Loach (Kes, My Name is Joe, The Wind that Shakes the Barley). Like most English dramedies (Local Hero, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Brassed Off, Kinky Boots, Mrs. Henderson Presents and so on), this one is small, amusing and well-crafted. And sometimes that’s all you need.