‘The Duke’ isn’t a regal biopic, but it’s a lovely one

“The Duke” (2022) – Roger Michell’s new movie isn’t a biopic about Duke University Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski, but the film’s title would be apropos for one.  Coach K is considered basketball royalty.  He won five national championships and ended his career in 2022 as the sport’s win leader with 1,202 victories against just 368 losses. 

Indeed, the man deserves all the praise and adoration in the world, but after the unrelenting, unyielding, and insufferable press from January to April about his last season, this critic is profoundly relieved that “The Duke” isn’t remotely connected to college hoops.

No, Michell (“Notting Hill” (1999), “Morning Glory” (2010)), who sadly passed away last year at 65, directed a celluloid biography about someone altogether different, Kempton Bunton, an ordinary Newcastle, England resident, and a nominal 1961 event.

Kempton (Jim Broadbent) stole The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London, which caused a countrywide stir, and the police had zero suspects.

The British government paid 140,000 pounds for Francisco de Goya’s painting, so how did this 50-something lift it…undetected?

The whole thing became a puzzler for quite a while for the Brits and the movie audience, as Michell, Broadbent, and screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman do not delve into Mr. Bunton’s plan at all. 

This particular theft is the cinematic opposite of the elaborate, massively involved heists at The Bellagio and Charlotte Motor Speedway in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) and “Logan Lucky” (2017), respectively.

Dorothy (Helen Miren) and Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent)

So, don’t walk into “The Duke” and expect a highly-crafted robbery because this theft wasn’t.  Instead, the film offers a more valuable approach for this story, namely a thoughtful reflection on a commonplace family.  Yes, 1961 was a simpler time, although, for Kempton, his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), and their two sons – like millions of other English (and American) families – rubbing two shillings together could be a daunting proposition. 

Kempton and Dorothy make honest livings, but driving a cab, cleaning houses while on your hands and knees for long hours, or shuffling thousands of loaves in a bakery can wear on one’s spirit, especially when the meager financial rewards might seem like bread crumbs.

Cinematographer Mike Eley – who worked with Michell on “My Cousin Rachel” (2017) and “Blackbird” (2019) – offers dour and muted grays, greens, and browns both inside and outside, as neon greens and blues (from the 1990s) seem about as far away as the 22nd century.

(As a public service announcement and general observation, as someone who lived through the 1990s, that decade’s fashion statements weren’t an improvement.)

Jeremy Hutchinson QC (Matthew Goode)

These working-class color palettes fill the screen throughout the picture, but two particular moments will make you lean forward in your theatre seat with a bit of awe.

First, the opening credits feature our hero walking by row housing made of worn red brick, and he steps by a random garbage truck. In the distance, an ominous collection of active smokestacks spew grime into the air, but a contrasting upbeat, big-band ditty simultaneously blasts through the speakers.  Second, editor Kristina Hetherington brilliantly pieces together a montage of vintage 1960s London that perfectly matches Eley and Michell’s capture of Kempton wandering The Big Smoke, as if Broadbent magically steps into a gentle time warp, and he graciously invites us along. 

Grace might be the operative word for “The Duke”, as Michell spends the bulk of the thrifty 96-minute runtime capturing Kempton’s and Dorothy’s idiosyncrasies, and Broadbent and Mirren might be perfectly cast.

Broadbent’s Kempton is a laid-back, charismatic working stiff who pays his dues but doesn’t feel he should shell out unfair ones.  Namely, his biggest beef is with the government charging a television tax, so he starts his own one-man “Free TV for the OAP” campaign. 

A television tax?  Was that a thing?  Yikes. 

(Well, current cable and streaming fees are no picnic either, but I digress.)

Kempton Bunton (Broadbent)

Well, it’s a two-man effort because his dutiful son joins him.  Meanwhile, Dorothy believes this is just another of her husband’s unfruitful pursuits.  Her limited patience is well warranted because she’s seen Kempton stand on his idealistic soapbox for years.  The tension between the two isn’t solely spiked because of the TV tariff.  They haven’t yet found peace from a past tragedy, and Broadbent’s and Mirren’s performances and the script handle this delicate issue with care and maturity. 

Make sure you bring a tissue or two to the cinema for those specific moments but by and large, prepare to smile during this lovely time at the movies.  Incidentally, “The Duke” is rated R, one of 2022’s great mysteries, because this movie seems like a PG-13 film or possibly a PG affair.  Well, if Kempton Bunton were alive in 2022, he would have another legit complaint.

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Roger Michell

Written by: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Jack Bandeira, and Matthew Goode

Rated: R

Runtime: 96 minutes

Image credits: Warner Bros. Entertainment

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