Work Of Art

‘The Duke,’ a delightful British art-heist movie

It begins with the usual heist procedures: People make plans, break windows, and steal stuff. But The Duke is not like other heist flicks and the differences make it one of the year’s finest, most captivating films.

To begin with, the criminals in this smart and based-on-fact drama are not the ruffians of Rififi or the gentlemen of Oceans 11; in fact, there’s only one criminal and he’s just some bloke with a fondness for art. The treasure he’s after is not jewels or gold but a painting, arguably one of the most valuable works of art in London: a portrait of the Duke of Wellington from Francisco Goya’s 1800’s collection. Even more valuable, writer-director Roger Michell has chosen to tell this story in an unconventional way that’s as quaint as teatime in England.

In the tradition of his earlier work (Blackbird, Notting Hill), Michell has elegantly interspersed the intrigue of The Duke with snippets of humor that give everything a laid-back feel. There isn’t an ounce of suspense, nor is there the action you’d expect from a story about a man who an entire country chases. Kempton is a 61-year-old taxi driver who is a bit overweight, a bit off his rocker, and about as far from George Clooney as London is from Vegas. How on earth does he orchestrate a heist?

Good question. While he may not be able to keep a job or keep his mouth shut at home, Kempton sure as heck knows how to make things happen when it comes to standing up for what he believes. The story opens on a suburban neighborhood, dark mills belching in the background, as the police knock on one of the many painted doors lining the street. Kempton is inside removing a gizmo from his TV, that way he can tell the police that he doesn’t have to pay for his cable services.

He feels that television is one of the few things old people have in life, and that it should be free. When his plan backfires, he decides to steal a painting from the National Gallery in order to pawn it and pay for thousands of cable stations for old people. It seems like a childish prank, but Jim Broadbent sells it with the conviction of a union protester, as only he could.

'The Duke'
Jim Broadbent in ‘The Duke.’

He takes center stage in every scene he’s in, but quite a cast surrounds him. Helen Mirren chews the scenery as Dorothy, who just wants her husband to come home safe. She’s accompanied by her son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead, who is terrific), plus a pair of lawyers and a housewife whose mansion she cleans, and who calls Kempton “a man of the people.”

The delicious silliness of The Duke creeps up on you, because the British humor gives Kempton an easy-to-root-for quality. He cracks jokes at court, writes a ransom note that needs to be seen to be believed, and gives free rides to people who can’t afford them. Tonally, Broadbent proves to be the film’s linchpin–as Kempton, he’s kind of silly, kind of sweet, he tries hard and succeeds; maybe not in the way he originally thought but had fun nonetheless. His performance is the perfect reflection of how The Duke is wonderfully unique.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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