Make this charming, albeit outrageous eccentric in particular: Broadbents Kempton Bunton, an underemployed guard at a public pension who spends most of his time writing unpublished plays and angry letters to the editor about the injustice of TV licenses to retired permanent residents income. (In England, people pay a sort of tax for the privilege of watching an ad-free BBC. A protest sign shown in the film reads “Free TV for the OAP”, or old-age pensioner.) When Kempton learns the British government has just given over £ 140,000 for to prevent Goya’s early 19th-century work, which he does not even like, from being bought by an American collector, Kempton decides – yes, better to let the film work its magic, which includes a few mild plot twists .
Suffice it to say that the Goya one day shows up under the Buntons’ roof, where the protagonist and his son Jackie (an appealingly indulgent Fionn Whitehead) quarrel about not just how to hide it from Kempton’s wife, Dorothy (a decidedly less indulgent – and almost unrecognizable – Mirren), but what to do with it. The latter question is resolved by Kempton’s anonymous announcement to a newspaper that he intends, so to speak, to keep the painted wood panel for ransom, which he will then distribute to the common man.
This message alongside Robin Hood is leaned on by director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) and his writers (Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) with a light touch, bringing a not-so-terribly serious approach to the film’s populist themes of social justice and income inequality. (Anna Maxwell Martin plays Dorothy’s employer, a woman with a liberal attitude for whom Dorothy works as a maid.)
The timeline for the actual incident is compressed from year to month – the faster you get around to the trial that follows when Kempton is arrested. Kempton’s lawyer, played by a skewed confused Matthew Goode, amuses his client by arguing that the Goya was not stolen as much as borrowed. Still, even though a good portion of the film is preoccupied with the trial, “The Duke” is not a courtroom drama.
The larger morality of the story, which only casts a light on ethnic bigotry, classicism and the inevitable circle of poverty, while at the same time touching on a tender background of grief and loss, is quite simple: I am you and you are me. The altruistic mantra – one that reminds us of our common humanity – is delivered on the stand, eloquently, in a sweet package made sweeter by two of England’s finest actors.
R. At the area’s theaters. Contains crude language and brief sexuality. 96 minutes.