Broadbent and Mirren charm ‘The Duke’ art heist photo

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If you’re going to face a jury for a crime you’ve already confessed to — and even explained how you did it — you better have something going for you besides a “not guilty” plea.

Briton Kempton Bunton’s real-life character, an amiable sixty-something taxi driver who was acquitted of the theft of a national art treasure in 1961, definitely did it. He had charm, he had wit and he had a good story.

The same could be said for what British director Roger Michell, who died last year at 65, brings to ‘The Duke’. He imbues his latest film with so much charm, wit and good storytelling that he too can’t help but win.

One of Michell’s talents was choosing the right cast and letting the chemistry shine. After all, he’s the man who directed Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the classic romantic comedy “Notting Hill.”

‘The Duke’ – named after the Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington which was stolen from the National Gallery – is not a romantic comedy. Jim Broadbent’s Kempton is a portly man who struggles to keep a job (as a taxi driver he talks too much) and writes plays that aren’t produced. Helen Mirren’s Dorothy is his moderate wife, who cleans houses and suppresses sadness in the face of family tragedy. But their touching chemistry does the trick, and Broadbent – who has a lot more to do in the movie – is damn near perfect as the man whose Robin Hood principles win out in the most unlikely scenarios.

Of course, it was these tenets that got Bunton in trouble in the first place. (Reader, please note: The script takes a few liberties with the real story, which itself contains a huge twist, but describing it all here would spoil a lot of the fun. You’ll learn the truth at the end. Also, there’s Google.) In short, Bunton was passionate about free access to television, especially for OAP, i.e. elderly retirees – many of whom could not afford the mandatory license fees government for the BBC.

It was access to television, according to Bunton, that connected the elderly to the outside world. And so, shortly after we meet him, he spends a few weeks in jail for refusing – on principle – to pay his own licensing fees.

Wife Dorothy is deeply embarrassed by her husband’s social activism, who also finds him campaigning in the streets. And she has little patience for her copious dramaturgy. (One of his plays, which he tells a woman in the shops, imagines Jesus as a woman and is called “The Adventures of Susan Christ.”) We learn from one of the couple’s two sons, Jackie, that playwriting is a coping mechanism. to deal with the death of their daughter in a bicycle accident, a tragedy that Dorothy refuses to discuss.

Kempton promises Dorothy that after a two-day trip to London to kick off one last push for his social causes – AND his plays – he’ll settle down and find steady work. But in London, nobody wants to listen. Dejected, he sits down and sees a newspaper on the ground. He recounts this portrait of the duke, for which the government paid a huge sum, amounting to millions today, to avoid losing to an American collector. Imagine how many older people could get free TV licenses for that amount?

And soon, poof, the painting was gone – slipped out of the National Gallery toilet window in the middle of the night.

Kempton and his son Jackie (a seductive Fionn Whitehead) quickly build a false wall for the bedroom closet. After all, the prospect of Dorothy discovering it is even scarier than the police finding the hot paint. As for the hapless police, they quickly announce that the theft is probably the work of a sophisticated gang of international art thieves. Watching Broadbent’s Kempton nearly choke to death on his biscuit when he hears the police on TV calling the culprit “almost certainly a trained commando” is priceless.

But it’s the balance of humor and pathos that makes this film work, and the trial scenes are the highlight, with the evil judge and prosecutor clearly unprepared for the sympathetic response Bunton will receive. (Matthew Goode also impresses as an incredibly suave defense attorney — when Bunton first meets him, he says he feels like he’s going to be offered a gin and tonic.)

Speaking of suave and cocktails, there’s also a sneaky appearance by Sean Connery as James Bond in ‘Dr. No’, which, in case you don’t remember, featured the same portrayal of the Duke of Wellington. The humor in Broadbent and Mirren’s faces here, and elsewhere, is one of the many joys of this delightful and poignant film, fitting punctuation for its director’s career.

“The Duke”, a Sony Pictures Classics release, was rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language and brief sexuality”. Duration: 96 minutes. Three out of four stars.

MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

Follow National AP writer Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP

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