Movie Review (SIFF 2022): ‘The Duke’ Will Steal Your Heart
Director: Roger Mitchell
Writers: Richard Bean, Clive Coleman
Stars: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Fionn Whitehead
Synopsis: In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60 year old taxi driver, steals Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
Heists and capers have been a subgenre of film since its inception. Audiences like to imagine throwing off the societal chains and taking all they can when they can, really sticking it to the man and the system. Modern heist movies even have that adrenaline fix. To see Point Break, Heat, or The Town is to want to then sit back in a chair at a party with your closest friends and float the idea by them, just to watch their eyes light up, just to get a taste of what that would feel like for the five of you. The Duke isn’t that kind of an adrenaline rush, but it is a kind of kindness rush.
The Duke is in a sub-sub genre of heist film. It’s a gentle heist, a Robin Hood like heist. It’s a film where the theft of the item is benign and its value is in what it can do for other people. The Duke is a heist film that makes you and those five friends want to spend a Saturday making sandwiches to hand out to people in the park or build a jungle gym for some kids who don’t have anywhere to play after school. It’s a film about wanting to help people because it’s the right thing to do.
What is remarkable about the story is that Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so thoroughly principled. Even when Kempton is presented with the easy way out, a splitting of the cash reward for the location of the painting, he still sticks to his guns. He keeps himself on message because it really isn’t about him, his life, or his own well being, but the well being of the people he knows are being left behind.
Though, of course, what story of a man with a stubborn, principled dream could be complete without the put upon wife. Dorothy Bunton (Helen Mirren) doesn’t support her husband because of his passion. She supports him because she loves him. Unlike a lot of these types of stories, though, Dorothy is not going to roll her eyes and grin at her husband’s schemes, she instead puts her foot down. Dorothy may love Kempton and will stick by his side, but she has no interest in his schemes.
That’s the beauty of Helen Mirren as an actress. She can take on this unglamorous woman and make her into a symbol. Dorothy may clean other people’s houses, take care of other people’s children, but she does it because it must be done because if she didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. Mirren gives herself fully into the role and shows the decades of labor Dorothy has endured on her shoulders. She keeps the story grounded in the most wacky of circumstances.
Though, the writers, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, often try to have it all with their female characters. After focusing on Dorothy, it seems they wanted to make small statements about the gender inequality of the time. There’s the lady of the house where Dorothy works who is only able to visit the golf course her husband plays at, not ever play there, when she’s accompanied by him. The forensic analyst who is spot on when profiling Kempton, but is dismissed by the sexist cops around her. The woman of the press who asks the correct questions at the briefing, but is scoffed at by her peers. There’s little to suggest one of Kempton’s crusades was for gender equality or women’s rights, so these scenes, while interesting, seem tacked on. Unlike when Kempton stands up for a South East Asian man who is experiencing racial discrimination at work. It’s a bit of a distraction even if it is a historically accurate one.
The Duke is charming, funny, and unpredictable. There is a lot to love about the story and the characters. There is even this nearly seamless way in which modern actors are imposed on archival footage of 1960s London. The Duke is a joyful caper that makes you think about how much more we could all be doing to impact the lives of others around us if we just stuck our noses out a little bit.