There’s no shortage of true crime onscreen these days, but between the corporate egomaniacs, brazen narcissists and scamming sociopaths, it’s a welcome twist to see misbehavior that’s more well-meant mischief than selfish misanthropy. “The Duke” is about a man who lied, cheated and stole, but director Roger Michell and star Jim Broadbent ensure that you’ll walk away thoroughly charmed anyhow.
The story begins in Newcastle, England, in 1961. It’s a quiet time in a quiet place, and Dorothy Bunton (Helen Mirren) wants nothing more than to live a quiet life. Her husband Kempton (Broadbent), however, has other plans. He’s not great at holding down a job or keeping up the house; she supports them by cleaning other people’s homes during the day, and their own at night. But Kempton, ever a friend to the underdog, does have a terrific talent for rabble-rousing. His current cause is the BBC television tax, which he feels is outrageously unfair to limited-income pensioners, or retirees, like himself.
After failing to gain much notice by sitting on rainy street corners with his loyal son (Fionn Whitehead, “Dunkirk”) and a couple of protest signs, a news story catches his eye: The British government has recently paid £140,000 to reclaim a Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington from the United States, as a symbol of national pride and patriotism. For Kempton, though, this expense — which, he notes, could have helped so many impoverished citizens — is an insult to ordinary Britons.
Obviously, the only thing to do is to steal the painting, hold it for ransom, and use the money to pay as many tax bills for as many pensioners as possible. What is also obvious, at least to us, is that Kempton cannot so much as make himself a cup of tea, let alone plan an elaborate heist.
Happily, Michell is more interested in the grifter than the grift. And Broadbent, expanding luxuriously into his ideal leading role, is absolutely delightful. What’s more, Michell and co-writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman realize how lucky they are to have Mirren playing Kempton’s wife. Where most screenplays might have pushed Mrs. Bunton into the background, Mirren has room to create a fully realized and unexpectedly complex character.
The filmmakers have taken some liberties with the true story (a half-hearted sketch of a villainous girlfriend feels unnecessarily lazy), but they’ve made the most of documented experience, too. Kempton’s court scenes (in which he’s defended by an underused Matthew Goode) are funny and charming and based on the actual havoc Bunton created as a fleeting folk hero.
This sense of fun is structural as well, with George Fenton’s jazzy score keeping the mood lighthearted even when serious issues come up. Mike Eley’s warm cinematography and Kristina Hetherington’s clever editing are also well-conceived, incorporating archival imagery that’s so effective, we could have used more of it.
Michell, who died last year and remains best known for “Notting Hill,” treats his final narrative film as its own sort of romance, having clearly fallen for these overlooked and underappreciated people himself. As a result, what could so easily be a calculated crowd-pleaser evolves from an entertaining caper into a genuinely moving love story. (In more ways than one, though surprises will remain unspoiled.)
Too many heartwarming comedies, especially those with mature leads, eventually expose themselves as cynical contrivances. The same could be said for some of the based-in-truth dramas that have started to feel inexorably churned out. In its affable sincerity, “The Duke” is both their opposite and their antidote, a feel-good entertainment for feel-bad times.
“The Duke” opens Friday in New York City and Los Angeles.