Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is a well-meaning if slightly eccentric OAP who is charged for the theft of a painting by Francisco de Goya. Together with his long-suffering wife (Helen Mirren) and his idealistic son (Fionn Whitehead), Kempton tells the story of how he came into the possession of the painting, why he stole it for a campaign for free TV licences, and why he ultimately returned it...
On the surface, 'The Duke' reads initially something like a forgettable caper-comedy. A stolen piece of artwork, a period setting, nothing much else to it, and could be easily dismissed as such out of hand.
Yet, there is something about it that is so ineffably moving from something that's so small on the surface. There are moments of quiet grace and dignity throughout 'The Duke' that speak to not only years of experience from its cast and the subtleties of their art, but also in both the scripting and directing. Jim Broadbent is no stranger to playing odd but loveable types, not to mention ones who find themselves at loggerheads with the system around them. Likewise, Helen Mirren has played everything from royalty to fishwife with considered poise and confidence. Yet, in small moments throughout this, they elevate it beyond mere archetypes to something truly special.
Their relationship, for example, feels so warm and lived in. Whether they're mucking about in the kitchen with one another or battling the grief of losing a daughter in quiet dignity, the way in which director Roger Michell allows them the space to breathe while the script by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman gives it life. It's all so self-assured, but not in such a showy way that negates its sincerity. Rather, 'The Duke' is crafted with a gentle, handmade delicacy that's all too rare these days. Whether it's George Fenton's jazzy soundtrack or the rousing choral rendition of 'Jersualem' at the end when victory (such as it is) is won, 'The Duke' stirs up such feeling of belief in one another.
Indeed, Broadbent's character speech from the dock, paired with Matthew Goode's supporting role as the barrister, speaks to something so much bigger - the idea of solidarity, community, the firm conviction that we are all stronger when we work together, be it as a town, a village, a people, or a nation and that isolationism leads only to despair.
'The Duke' delivers on this theme with such grace, speaking with such simplicity and clarity as to make it one of the best British dramedies in years.