Kempton Bunton may be on the witness stand in "The Duke" but he behaves like it's a stand-up comedy club.
The gentle, fact-based movie depicts Bunton (Jim Broadbent) as a goofy, absentminded rascal and social activist who fancies himself the Robin Hood of midcentury London. Those forces combine when the oft-arrested but infrequently employed Bunton decides to steal a Goya painting from the National Gallery and use the proceeds to finance his pet cause: buying TV subscriptions for British working-class people of the early 1960s.
That sounds a bit dry but the swift, charming "The Duke" absolutely isn't. Broadbent's dithery, endearing performance pairs perfectly with fellow Oscar winner Helen Mirren's as Dorothy Bunton, who supports the family by cleaning houses and takes a dim, sarcastic view of her husband's shenanigans.
Broadbent and Mirren make the Buntons' affection credible and lived-in. We believe these two are in love, even as she's making cracks like, "Oh, you're back? Didn't bring down the government, then?" Or this one, when she learns of her husband's latest scheme: "Yes, I'm shocked. There's a bloody masterpiece in my wardrobe."
The cops who keep showing up at the couple's door could be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled into the home of the comedy duo of Bunton and Bunton, since they're treated to exchanges such as exasperated Dorothy, arriving home in the midst of yet another shake-down, exclaiming, "Here we go again." And Kempton drolly assuring the officers, "My wife always supports me. In private."
There's a caper element to "The Duke," announced by George Fenton's jazzy, "Pink Panther"-esque musical themes. The theft is surprisingly straightforward but director Roger Michell doles out the details cleverly, in flashbacks, as Kempton testifies on his own behalf while also shilling for his novel about a female Jesus, "The Adventures of Susan Christ." This messing around with chronology could feel manipulative if the stakes of "The Duke" were higher but, instead, it's like each revelation is a little gift.
Eventually, it becomes clear that the contrasting temperaments of the Buntons mirror the dramatically different ways they've responded to a tragic loss in their past. That, too, could come off as forced or sentimental. But in the hands of the late Michell, who also directed quiet gems such as "The Mother" and "Notting Hill," it has the texture and humor of real life.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for language.
Where: Limited theaters.