Producer: Nicky Bentham    Director: Roger Michell   Screenplay: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman   Cast: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead, Matthew Goode, Anna Maxwell Martin, Jack Bandeira, Aimée Kelly, Joshua McGuire, Charlotte Spencer, John Heffernan, Andrew Havill, James Wilby, Heather Craney, Richard McCabe, Charles Edwards and Sian Clifford   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B+

The final fiction film by director Roger Michell (his documentary on Queen Elizabeth II has just begun rolling out in Europe) is a delicious crowd-pleaser in the old Ealing mode, a fact-based dramedy about a little man with a dream who bests the system by sheer pluck.  “The Duke” serves as a marvelous valedictory to a career that has often been undervalued because his films eschewed flashiness and glitz, opting instead for something more tender and gentle.

Kempton Bunton, the man at the center of the story, may not be “little” in physical stature—by all accounts the genuine article was a big bear of a man, and he’s played here by Jim Broadbent, the great character actor who’s tall and rather beefy—but he is certainly is in terms of the British society of 1961, when he became notorious for pulling off one of the most notorious art thefts of the century, stealing Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery, which had recently purchased it from a collector.

It wasn’t a crime of profit, however.  Bunton was a retiree eking out a living for himself and long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) in Newcastle as a part-time taxi driver, though the self-taught man was really an aspiring writer, penning plays he regularly sent off to the BBC, only to receive a stream of rejection letters.  He also was an activist for social justice, with a special passion for protesting a fee elderly folks like himself had to pay for a required TV license.  His ransom demand for the painting was that the government forgo the charge for the aged and disabled.

For four years Bunton kept the portrait hidden while authorities searched for the perpetrators, whom they assumed to be some international gang, though the messages he sent them negotiating for its return certainly indicated otherwise.  But in 1965 he abruptly returned it—the screenplay suggests the reason, which is further amplified by a twist at the movie’s end—and was put on trial, a spectacle in which he demonstrated a gift for homely theatricality in his testimony that obviously affected the jury.  But it certainly didn’t hurt that he was represented by Jeremy Hutchinson (played here by Matthew Goode), a progressive thinker who had earlier been part of the defense team in the watershed obscenity trial against “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and was at the time, it’s noted, married to actress Peggy Ashcroft.

The filmmakers also have fun ridiculing the pomposity of police and politicians attempting to track down the thieves—Charles Edwards is the over-confident commissioner of police, who offhandedly dismisses the startlingly accurate assessment of a handwriting expert (Sian Clifford) about the personality of the ransom-letter writer, and Richard McCabe has a few choice moments as the pass-the-buck home secretary. 

Michell, Broadbent and Goode make the most of the Ealing-like aspects of the heist and ensuing trial, and Broadbent revels in the character’s eccentricities, presenting Bunton as a person of principle and self-sacrifice.  The script pays as much attention to his family life, and the toll his quixotic campaigns had on it, as to the robbery.  In the process it simplifies the household a bit, but effectively portrays Dorothy’s exasperated efforts to make him become a more stable, reliable husband—Mirren practically disappears into the role of the anxious spouse constantly complaining of his disregard of the slightest hint of compromise—and his brusque but affectionate relationships with his sons Kenny (Jack Bandeira), a fellow hiding out from the authorities and earning Dorothy’s ire because of his dalliance with a married (and perhaps rapacious) woman (Anna Maxwell Martin), and especially Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), who’s trying to go straight and dating a lovely girl (Aimée Kelly).  Much is also made of the inability of Kempton and Dorothy to come to terms with the death of a daughter in a cycling accident, Kempton in particular blaming himself for the tragedy.  That aspect of the narrative adds dramatic depth to its more obviously accessible comic ones. 

Mirren, Whitehead and Goode are all excellent, but it’s Broadbent who carries the day, expertly threading the fine line between excess and understatement in expressing what an oversized character Bunton was.  And one can enjoy not only the lead contributions but those of the fine supporting cast, which also includes winning bits by the likes of Andrew Havill as the director of the National Gallery, James Wilby as the trial judge and Heather Craney as his clerk, and John Heffernan as the prosecutor, among many others.  The film lovingly recreates the England of some six decades ago, with outstanding work by production designer Kristina Milsted and costumer Dinah Collin, all captured in attractive images by cinematographer Mike Eley.  Kristina Hetherington’s editing keeps the action clear even when flashbacks and twists are involved, and George Fenton’s score doesn’t overdo the cuteness.                           

“The Duke” serves as a fitting tribute to both Bunton and Michell, while providing further evidence of Broadbent’s place as one of the most reliable and engaging of contemporary actors.