Roger Michell, the South African-born British director of theater, film and TV, passed away without notice (“undisclosed”) last fall, before his final two filmed works — one of them a new documentary about Britain’s longest reigning queen — were released.
But the director of “Notting Hill,” “Venus,” “Hyde Park on Hudson” and “Enduring Love” could not have arranged a finer, more representative curtain call that what turns out to have been his final feature.
“The Duke,” a remembrance of notorious British crime — the theft of a famous painting for political purposes in the 1960s — begins as a lighthearted caper comedy and then transforms into something almost magical, an essay on grief, old age and community, the shared humanity of a simple working man’s turn of class conscious phrase — “I’m not me without you.”
A simple, sentimental story told with panache and cast to perfection, it’s entertainment with heart, and allows a director who once turned his back on a James Bond movie to bow out with a winner.
Two scenes tell you its tone. In the first, our thief, an ever-protesting OAP (old age pensioner) played with extra twinkle by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, leans down, squints and regards the famous painting of The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, which he’s just nicked from Britain’s National Gallery. He tells his son (Fionn Whitehead), “It’s not very good, is it?”
Granted, the grumpy gadfly Kempton Bunton had greeted the recent news that the British government acquired the masterpiece for £140,000, as the “toffs” “spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked portrait by a Spanish drunk of a Duke who was a bastard to his men and who voted against universal (British) suffrage.” So he’s not exactly unbiased.
And in another scene, the crack 1960s British coppers bring in a handwriting analyst to tell them about the “international criminal gang” that stole “The Duke.” They’re convinced “Italians” nicked it. She tells them the hand-written ransom note is British, working class in origin, that it reveals “a poor education,” that the note composed by “an autodidact.”
“Car mechanic?” Scotland Yard’s finest wants to know.
That’s how this lighthearted romp goes, an elderly (disabled, it turns out) retired bus driver, griping about Britain’s means of paying for TV programming — the “television license” — fights The Man through the press and attempts at addressing Parliament.
His embittered, repressed wife (Oscar winner Helen Mirren), housecleaner to a local posh (Anna Maxwell Martin), is no support, muttering about his endless attempts at playwriting and his embarrassing willingness to go to jail over the damned TV license, which he figures pensioners should get for free.
“My wife always supports me,” he quips to the postal police who show up to enforce the TV license thing, “in private.“
And then Kempton goes off and steals a painting from a hilariously insecure pride-of-the-nation museum. Protest is protest, he figures.
“Rome wasn’t burnt in a day,” Kempton cracks. “How you do eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”
Michell, working from a wry script by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, tells this story in shades of working class grit and fading “class loyalty,” with a touch of 1960s cinematic pizazz — split screen “caper comedy” editing set to a jazz and jazz pop score that includes a little Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.
Broadbent has played plenty of “toffs” in his time, but always seems more naturally a working man with a Dickensian touch — putting on airs, attempts at eloquence beyond his station. He looks right at home with a homemade megaphone, railing against the TV license, losing a taxi driving gig because he wouldn’t charge a disabled WWI veteran or sacked from a bakery gig for sticking up for a co-worker.
Kempton Bunton is a leftist Don Quixote without a horse, a Robin Hood in his own mind.
Which is why “The Duke” doesn’t spend a lot of time with how the fellow was caught, years later.
Michell and company mine the story’s mother lode — the trial. The estimable Matthew Goode plays Bunton’s barrister, a wealthy lawyer who happened to be married to the Queen of the British theater, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Goode lends a misty-eyed idealism to Queen’s Council Jeremy Hutchinson, a man who knows how to feed straight lines to a born performer and natural wit — Kempton Bunton — in the form of questions.
“The Duke” isn’t an award contender of any note, and the older cast and period piece nature of it rule out box office glory. But it’s adorable, finding laughs (look for the Bond joke in the finale) and connecting with shared sentiments. It’s one last feather in the cap of a filmmaker who always touched as he entertained, who often wore his heart on his sleeve and made damned sure his actors did as well.
Rating:R for language and brief sexuality
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Anna Maxwell Martin, Fionn Whitehead and Matthew Goode
Credits: Directed by Roger Michell, scripted by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:35