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Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren

“THE DUKE” My rating: B (In theaters)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

For all of their perceived stuffiness, the British do love their eccentrics. And in Kempton Bunton — portrayed in Roger Michell’s funny/stirring “The Duke” by the great Jim Broadbent — they had one of the best.

In 1961 Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver (among other gigs…the man couldn’t hold a job), was tried for stealing from the National Gallery a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by the great Spanish artist Goya.

A few weeks after the painting went missing Bunto strolled into the museum with the stolen artwork wrapped in brown paper, handed it to a guard and promptly admitted to the theft.

His defense was that the government had, to prevent the painting being returned to Spain, spent 140,000 pounds to purchase the portrait (which, most everyone agreed, wasn’t particularly good even if it did depict a British hero), and that all that money could have been better used to promote the common welfare.

Like, for instance, paying the TV tax of poor English families. From the late 1940s through 2000 British TV owners paid an annual tax meant to underwrite the operations of the BBC. Bunton was on a personal crusade against what he saw as an unfair and regressive tax; in fact he’d briefly gone to prison for failing to pay his own TV tax. (His novel defense was that he’d disabled his set so that it could pick up commercial stations but not the BBC, and therefore he didn’t owe the government a farthing.)

Scripted by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman and directed by Roger Michell (his last film, finished shortly before his death last year), “The Duke” starts out as a study in oddball populism and gradually picks up weight and substance until it’ll damn near have you choking back tears.

Broadbent was clearly born to play Bunton, a character of Dickensian dimensions. A perennial writer of letters to the editor, a critic of the Brit class system and an ambitious but unperformed playwright, the man is always getting into trouble.

But here’s the thing…Kempton Bunton is wildly entertaining. You can’t tell if he’s deliberately giving the middle finger to decorum and propriety, or whether he’s a sort of political/social idiot savant. He delights court watchers with his rapid-fire comebacks (asked where he was born, Bunton replies without missing a beat: “The back bedroom”). At one point the judge cautions that he’s not auditioning for a musical.

Matthew Goode

If Bunton is a rising folk hero in the Old Bailey, he’s in the doghouse at home.

His wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, dowdied down to the nines) has just about had it with him. While her husband loses job after job she slogs away as a cleaning lady for rich folk. Moreover, she blames him for the death a few years before of their teenage daughter (the movie never really makes clear why she would think that, but there it is).

And, she notes, Kempton is a terrible role model for his two boys, especially the younger, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), who soaks up his pa’s antiestablishment attitudes. (Indeed, as things progress Jackie, in a nifty plot twist, becomes a pivotal figure in his father’s fate.)

Matthew Goode has a juicy supporting role as Bunton’s defense attorney, who has the good sense to simply let his client be himself on the stand, thus winning the hearts of Englishmen everywhere.

“Torn from the headlines” usually indicates a tragedy in the offing. In case of Kempton Bunton it means head-shaking delights.

| Robert W. Butler

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