Many groups are poorly represented in the allocation of government programs throughout the world. One of the historically worst served communities are pensioners and other retired people. Typically on fixed incomes, it’s no surprise that they can have simmering anger towards their treatment by the government, their increasingly unfair tax liability, and often frozen benefits, even as the cost of living keeps going up. It’s not fair, but who’s listening?
In the wry and amusing The Duke it’s 1961 and big-hearted cab driver Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is semi-retired and living in very modest surroundings. He’s also frustrated about the television license that everyone in England is required to purchase so they can legally watch the tax-subsidized programming on the BBC. Why, he keeps asking, can’t the taxman waive the license requirements for people who are retired and military veterans, as a small gesture of appreciation?
Based on a true story of the era, Kempton is Don Quixote, tilting against the windmill of government bureaucracy. He can afford to pay his TV license, as we learn, but it’s the principle of the thing; why do pensioners have to pay the darn license fee at all? There’s also an underlying tragedy in the Bunton family; his fight for respect might have an element of redirected grief from the tragic loss of a family member. Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) refuses to talk about their loss. Grief, she explains with a pain all her own, is an intensely private affair.
Kempton not only protests the TV tax – even to the point of going to jail for failing to pay his own TV license fee – but also ironically writes TV teleplay scripts about the tragic loss of family members and how it impacts the survivors. It’s his attempt at healing, but he seems to be stuck with no effective way to process his guilt. All the more reason to protest the tax! He travels to London to bring his protest to the Houses of Parliament when he hits upon his great plan: Steal the famous and tremendously popular portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, a painting the National Gallery had just purchased for a widely publicized £140,000. Surprisingly, he succeeds.
With the help of his younger son and earnest supporter Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), they stash the Goya in the house – can’t have Dorothy finding it, after all – and begin a letter writing campaign to the government announcing that they have the painting and insisting on a ransom payment directly to the TV license bureau to cover the cost of licenses for a few thousand pensioners and veterans.
The Duke is a fun and witty film that’s typically English in its sensibility. Broadbent is delightful in the lead role and Mirren is note-perfect as the long-suffering wife who loves her husband, however bonkers he may be on a day-to-day basis. The highlights of the film are the courtroom scenes, however, when Kempton is being grilled by the prosecution about his theft and absolutely owns the courtroom with his hilarious responses. it’s also very much an art-house movie that you likely won’t be able to watch at the local cineplex. With almost no action, but plenty of discourse, it’s more akin to a stage production, which doesn’t detract one iota from its charm and delight. Highly recommended.