The Duke tells the story of the unlikely theft of Goy’s painting of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in 1961.
The Production: 4/5
Many Americans take television for granted, particularly broadcast and even more so, PBS. In the United Kingdom, citizens have to pay for an annual license (many refer to it as a “tax”) to own a television, currently £159 ($191 USD) per year per household, which in turn funds the BBC, but does not fund any of the other broadcast channels, which are mostly ad-supported.
In 1961, Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), a 60-year old man who has difficulties holding down a job in New Castle, began protesting this fee, claiming it was too expensive for the elderly. So much so that he removes the BBC coil from his television, arguing that he should not have to pay then license fee if his television set cannot receive the BBC. The General Post Office disagrees, and after detecting that Bunton’s house has a TV but no license, Bunton is thrown into jail. Once he is released, Bunton sees on the news that the British government has purchased a painting of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya for £140,000. Outraged at the waste of money (not to mention his dislike for the Duke), thinking that the money could have better been used to cover TV licenses for seniors. The irony of all of this is that Bunton has been writing and submitting plays to the BBC, which are constantly being rejected. His wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren), has had enough of his shenanigans, and after he loses his job as a taxi driver, she tells him that he needs to find a steady job once and for all and give up writing. He agrees, under one condition – she grant him a two day trip to London to address Parliament on the unfair TV license fees to seniors. He is immediately thrown out of the Parliament building upon his arrival, but comes into possession of the Duke of Wellington portrait by Goya. His son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) helps him hide the painting in a wardrobe at the house, and begins sending letters to the National Gallery asking them to make a donation of £140,000 and in exchange he will return the painting. Of course, the police think this was the work of a criminal mastermind, possibly a group of art thieves, and have no idea the theft was done on a whim by a commoner.
But there is an underlying story here – both Kempton and Dorothy are still trying to come to terms with the loss of their 18 year old daughter after a tragic bicycle accident 13 years ago (the source of many of Kempton’s manuscripts). You can sense their underlying sadness as they go about their everyday lives and eccentricities (thanks to brilliant performances by Broadbent and Mirren). The Duke was made very much in the style of the Ealing comedies from Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s, directed by the late Roger Michell (Notting Hill) who passed away in 2021 after completing the film but before it was released theatrically earlier this year. My only real issue with the film is that I felt it did not really connect the dots from Bunton’s antics and protests of TV license fees to the concession of those fees in the year 2000 to those over the age of 75, and makes no mention that the concession ended in 2020.
3D Rating: NA
Sony brings The Duke to Blu-ray in a wonderful 1080p AVC-encoded transfer retaining the film’s 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The cinematography by Mike Eley (Diary of a Nobody, My Cousin Rachel) captures the look and feel of 1960s British cinema, with vivid colors and deep blacks. Detail is excellent, so much so that it is obvious when the film shifts to stock footage from the era.
The film’s lone DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is quite good, but being a dialogue-heavy film, there really isn’t a whole lot for it to do (although the opening Pathe logo sounds terrific). Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout, directed mostly to the center channel. Surrounds are used primarily for music extensions and atmospheric effects. LFE is good, adding a nice low-end to the mix where necessary.
Special Features: 2/5
Making “The Duke” (1080p; 2:50): A run of the mill EPK pre-show trailer for the film.
Theatrical Trailer (1080p; 2:27)
The Duke is an entertaining little British import about the little guy bewildering the government. Presentation is excellent, but the special features are a bit thin.
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