A portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya disappears from the British National Gallery in London during the summer of 1961.
Sounds like the set-up for a caper movie revolving around a carefully detailed scene in which cunning thieves find a way into the museum and a way out with the famous painting.
But director Roger Michell has something different in mind in The Duke, the story of a real-life theft involving a 61-year-old man who never met a cause he wasn't willing to stand up for.
When we meet Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), he has focused considerable passion on what seems an exceedingly narrow crusade. Bunton doesn't want to pay for the TV license that allowed British TV watchers to access the BBC in the 1960s. He's disabled his set so that it can't receive the BBC and sees no reason why he should be required to have a license.
Bunton claimed he had no interest in profiting from the Wellington heist, insisting instead that he kidnapped the painting and planned to use it as a bargaining chip to persuade the government to fund access to the BBC for the poor and for elderly pensioners.
He was less a robber than a quasi-imaginative Robin Hood who wrote plays that brought him little response other than a copious supply of rejection letters from the same BBC that he refused to pay for.
Michell, who died in September of last year, is best known for movies such as Notting Hill and Venus. It's no surprise then that the director, working from a screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, has made a character comedy that places itself solidly in the British working class where we meet Bunton's family -- his long- suffering wife (Helen Mirren) and his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead).
The Buntons reside in unfashionable Newcastle where Bunton, who ultimately returned the painting, loses jobs and conducts solitary protests.
Michell spends little time on the actual theft, opting to showcase Broadbent's performance as a good-hearted, obstinate fellow whose beliefs, at least as depicted in the movie, might have been authored for a Frank Capra screenplay.
We're meant to look out for one another. I am you. You are me, etc.
Broadbent and Mirren play an admirable duet in a movie that has no trouble embracing an old-fashioned spirit as it ambles toward a courtroom scene in which Bunton's barrister (a fine Matthew Goode) offers a moving defense of his client.
It's unlikely that The Duke will find a place in the pantheon of great movies. It can't quite shake its obvious sentiment and a story element about a daughter that the Buntons lost doesn't quite find the emotional resonance Michell may have wanted.
But the movie qualifies as a solid — if small — entertainment that gives Broadbent a showcase role. Broadbent previously worked with Michell in Le Week-End, a 2013 movie about an aging couple facing up to some of life's disappointments during a trip to Paris.
Sadly, Michell's untimely departure -- he was 65 when he died -- will prevent another collaboration. Consider it a loss.*
*If you’re a faithful reader of Denerstein Unleashed, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet of late. As a result of knee-replacement surgery, I have not seen some of the most recent high-profile movies nor have I been able to do much writing. I’m slowly working my way back and, although I’m probably going to be reviewing fewer movies for a while, will resume more regular publication in May.