The Duke Attempts to Steal Your Heart With a Little Misdirection.
DIRECTED BY ROGER MICHELL/2020/Release in 2022
In 1961, the iconic painting of “The Duke of Wellington” by Francisco Goya was stolen from The National Gallery in London. It was, and remains the only theft in the gallery’s history. Who is responsible, and their motives for doing so, make this story even more compelling.
Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is a 60-year old taxi driver living on only £8 per week. His wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) works hard cleaning the home of a wealthy politician, and making up for the lack of money earned by her husband who often finds himself unemployed quickly due to his political rants and activism. Kempton is particularly bothered by the BBC licensing fee which was required by all citizens who accessed the BBC broadcast. Arguing that pensioners, especially those who had fought in the two world wars, should receive this license for free, Bunton was well known to local authorities who tracked him receiving a signal for the BBC without having such a license. Bunton would cleverly remove the hardware in the television that received the signal so that he could frustrate law enforcement who couldn’t counter his argument that he couldn’t watch the BBC if he removed the part needed to receive the transmission.
From a working class town, Kempton and Dorothy had two sons, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira). Both had moderate skills as mechanics, working with both cars and boats, and both were also known to be involved in local youth crime rings, nicking and selling wares from around town, sticking it the wealthy and the like. What comes out in the screenplay from Richard Bean and Clive Coleman is the extreme wealth gap that existed in these working class towns, and this helps generate sympathy for what would unfold.
With Broadbent’s Kempton serving as The Duke’s unreliable narrator, we are given a version of the events leading up to his unlikely unplanned theft. Visiting London to truly speak to the powers that be, mainly the BBC where he was also trying to sell scripts he had written in his pursuit of being a published author. After having been shown the door at every place he went to protest the licensing fee, and to advocate for free television for pensioners, he finds himself sleeping outdoors, just outside the National Gallery which housed the famous painting of “The Duke of Wellington”.
The painting was a sore spot for Kempton Bunton, and many others, because the gallery used public funds to buy it from an American art collector for £140,000 to ensure it stayed in Great Britain. When he calculated the sum, he believed that the government could have provided free television to all who needed it instead of purchasing the painting. So, with an open bathroom window above him, we watch as Bunton describes how he was able to climb into the National Gallery to steal the painting at a time that security was switched off to allow for the floor to be cleaned before the next day of business.
The Duke is in no rush as it simply keeps it focus not so much on the caper, or Bunton’s attempts to send ransom notes announcing his intent to return the painting in exchange for more investment in the care of the elderly by the government, but on the family relationships of the Bunton family. The attempts to hide the painting and go about daily life wasn’t as much about not getting caught as it is a love story of Kempton Bunton’s attempts to love his wife Dorothy better. Their relationship has been strained for years due to the terrible loss of their daughter years before.
The subsequent trial led by the capable attempt at a defense by Kempton’s barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson QC (Matthew Goode), allows director Roger Michell to win over the hearts of the jury towards Kempton Bunton, but it is really the audience he is trying to seduce as the film engages in its own slight of hand to reveal facts about the case that did not come to light for 50 years. It is this reveal and the love story between the Buntons that is the real heart of this film.
The Duke will likely not make a huge splash at the domestic box office in America, given that this is a uniquely “British” story, and because Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is being unleashed upon nearly every single theater in America the same weekend. That being said, it is a good story that is carried ably along by its two leads. Broadbent and Mirren are both national treasures for the U.K. and The Duke just continues to demonstrate why. So if you are looking for a quieter film this weekend, based on true events and multiverse free, seek out The Duke…it may just steal your heart.