A Pretty Good Neighbor
What makes the ideal family movie? First, let’s define what I’m not talking about. I don’t mean an animated feature that’s geared toward kids but has a few pop-cultural references thrown in for the olds. I don’t mean an entry in the MCU, as older viewers might be turned off by the comic-booky violence and the serialized nature of each installment. I also don’t mean a treacly drama with an inspirational message.*
An ideal family movie (IFM) should ideally feature the following aspects:
- Jokes, but not too many
- Likable characters
- Emotion, but nothing too intense
- Violence that’s not too gnarly
- A relatively positive tone
You might be looking at those aspects and thinking it’s a sure-fire recipe for the cinematic equivalent of wallpaper paste. To paraphrase a great American, I feel you, dawg. An IFM needs to appeal to your retired grandmother, the one who thought Star Wars was too violent. It needs to appeal to your uncle, the one who seriously considered Ivermectin for a moment. It needs to appeal to you. It’s fiendishly difficult to make an IFM and it’s fiendishly difficult to find the right IFM for movie night.
The bad news is, not many IFMs are out these days. While they’ll always be made, they’ll also always be overshadowed by huge franchises and Oscar bait. The good news is that there’s a delightful little IFM out right now. It’s The Duke, based on a true story, and I had a grand time with it.
I guarantee you know someone like Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent). Kempton has beliefs…I’m sorry, Beliefs, and he will give you opinions on his Beliefs at great lengths. However, Kempton is also a wildly charming older guy, and even if you know right from the jump that he’s full of it, you still have a hell of a lot of fun listening to him.
It’s 1961 in the English city of Newcastle, and Kempton’s Beliefs have a funny way of getting him fired. When he’s not getting canned from a job as a taxi driver or bakery assistant, he’s an amateur playwright. Nothing has been produced, but that’s hardly relevant. Kempton also has a way of pissing off the authorities. Back in the day in England, everyone needed to pay for a television license. That license bought you a coil so that you could receive the BBC at home. Kempton removes the coil and proudly tells the authorities that there’s no need for him to pay for the license, which is clearly unfair.
A little later, Kempton is released from jail. Yes, for the non-payment of the TV license. His older son Kenny (Jack Bandiera) has become a small-time crook and isn’t too interested in his old da’s nonsense. His younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) adores Kempton and is often a too-willing accomplice in his harebrained schemes. And then there’s Dorothy (Helen Mirren), Kempton’s no-nonsense wife. She sees through his never-ending hurricane of balderdash, and just barely keeps the family above water by working as a housecleaner. But Dorothy deeply loves Kempton. She just wishes he’d straighten up, accept responsibility, and maybe don’t write a play about their deceased daughter. Grief is a private thing.
During a quixotic attempt to raise money for television licenses for the poor and elderly, Kempton discovers that Goya’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington** is on display in London. The portrait is lightly guarded. Somehow, it disappears and reappears in a wardrobe in Kempton’s flat. He might have a way to raise money for those television licenses, but he’ll need to stay a step ahead of the authorities first.
I was utterly charmed by The Duke. A big reason for that is the nimble direction by Roger Michell.*** Michell, who passed away in 2021, was one of those filmmakers more concerned with creating the right feel for a particular story instead of developing an individual style. He’s made a good-humored film that positively skips through Kempton’s misadventures. There’s not an ounce of fat on this thing due to Michell’s impeccable timing. He knows precisely when to goose the pacing for suspense or comic effect, and he knows when to tap the brakes to spend just enough time to let the characters breathe.
The screenplay by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is a wily one, and lesser writers would have pushed the aspect of the art theft plot first and followed with characterization. Despite a somewhat gimmicky decision to begin the story as Kempton is on trial and backtracking, the engine of the film is driven by who these people are and what they want. Coleman and Bean do a nice job with a touch of misdirection, which pleasantly yanks the rug out from under us.
The cast is all the way around, having an absolute blast here. Jim Broadbent has been in approximately sixteen billion films**** due to the fact that he’s an utter professional. He steals the film with his goofy, bombastic, right-to-the-edge-of-irritating performance as Kempton. Within a few moments, Broadbent tells us exactly what kind of a man Kempton is, yet over time he reveals interesting new layers. Helen Mirren’s role as Dorothy is far more subtle yet just as entertaining. She hits the comedy beats with the slightest of eye rolls and achieves real pathos as she continues to repress her grief. I also enjoyed Matthew Goode as Hutchinson, Kenyon’s barrister, and he’s got an excellent moment describing to the jury the kind of man his client truly is.
Somewhere, there’s a person planning a family get-together. They know one of the evenings will be occupied by a movie and they don’t have the faintest idea what to show. Trust me when I tell you that The Duke is precisely the kind of IFM you want to trot out in these situations. It’s a fizzy, fun little film that I hope isn’t forgotten.
*A couple of weeks after the death of my mother, my extremely devout Uncle decided to take my father and me to see Chariots of Fire. He believed that we’d be all in for the film’s uplifting message. Exactly the opposite happened and to this day, when I hear the theme music, I want to put my fist through a wall.
**Perceptive viewers will recognize the painting as the subject of an amusing gag in Dr. No.
***Michell directed Notting Hill and the beloved by me ethical thriller Changing Lanes.
****You can find a marvelous Broadbent performance in the underloved Cloud Atlas.