2 March 2024

More to The Duke than an entertaining caper

Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) and his wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren). Photograph: Pathe UK 

By Wendy Knowlton 

23 April 2022

The Duke is not quite the quirky British comedy its trailer suggests. This tale of a pensioner baffling the authorities whilst concealing a stolen Goya in his wardrobe has its humorous moments, but social issues, personal grief, and a twist at the end, make the modest film more thought-provoking than expected.  

The premise seems improbable, but the story is based on true events. In 1961 the newly purchased portrait of the Duke of Wellington was taken from the National Gallery in London. The police theory – a carefully planned heist by a gang of highly-skilled professionals – crumbled when a ransom note arrived, demanding increased financial provision for the elderly. Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent), an ageing activist who had been to jail several times after refusing to pay for the television licence he considered an imposition on pensioners, finally returned the painting and stood trial for its theft.  

Broadbent makes Bunton a loveable protagonist. He may be the despair of his careworn wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren) who cleans houses to make ends meet, but his failure to hold down a job is tied to his pursuit of social justice. Sacked for reducing a taxi fare for an elderly passenger or standing up for a fellow worker experiencing racial discrimination, he protests from a soapbox, collects petition signatures and rages against the £140,000 spent on an artwork when people are in need. 

But behind the public performances and protests lies a man who can’t get the audience he really desires. Bunton blames himself for the death of his young daughter, and his wife refuses to talk about it. He can’t find anyone willing to produce the cathartic play he bases on this tragedy and seems lost without a way to confess or achieve any sort of redemption. His opportunity, however, comes in the courtroom, when what appears to be happening conceals a sacrifice that reunites a family in a touching way. 

It is in the courtroom scenes that Broadbent shines. Bunton’s lawyer seems fondly amused rather than burdened by a client who has inconveniently confessed. Bunton approaches his court appearance as if he’s been hired as a raconteur rather than called to answer for a crime. He genially dismantles the gravity of the case, making fools of the prosecution and causing the female clerk of the court to smile tenderly, as if itching to mother him.  

The revelations in the final minutes of the film will send audience members scrolling through the internet to check what really happened, but despite the dramatic licence expected of a feature film, this extraordinary story doesn’t stray too far from the facts. When the painted Duke was imprisoned in the wardrobe, he glared balefully through a knothole, as if protesting the indignity to which he’s been subjected. But as the surprising verdict is announced and a member of the gallery bursts into a rousing rendition of Jerusalem, sympathy certainly lies with the dock and not the prosecution.  

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