I guess when real life events have a Hollywood ending, you kind of have to make a film out of them. I don’t think that’s a spoiler; this is a true story and while lots of people may not know how it wraps up I don’t think anyone will be surprised to find that Jim Broadbent’s ageing, righteous, circumstantial art thief doesn’t die alone in the slammer. Also, thanks to details that came out in freedom of information requests long after this case was the focus of media attention, there are still a few surprises.
Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton (again, amazingly that’s a real name not a movie one) who, in 1965, was prosecuted for the theft of Goya’s painting of The Duke of Wellington being exhibited in The National Gallery. The crime was big news at the time but is largely now immortalised by the famous portrait’s appearance in Dr. No’s lair in the first James Bond film. This clip is actually featured in The Duke but it fails to highlight that when Dr. No was released in 1962 the painting was still missing, it’s location being unknown for four full years. This last fact is also something this film ignores, making out that it was returned only months or even just weeks later.
The Duke has been compared to the Ealing Comedies of the 40s and 50s and indeed it is feasible that Bunton made these comparisons to himself at the time. You can see the links between this and movies like Whiskey Galore and The Lavender Hill Mob where amateur criminals chance their arm taking something that isn’t theirs for sociological reasons. In truth this has none of the darkness of much of that studio’s output at this time. The Duke is a very light film and when it does bring in a small element of tragedy this does not quite sit right. Out of respect for the circumstances of the Bunton family, descendants of whom have advised on the movie, it was right to include this aspect but it does jar slightly. It isn’t initially the comedy the trailer presents it as either (Helen Mirren’s Dorothy Bunton is played particularly differently to what I’d expected) but it is utterly charming from beginning to end.
There is social commentary here and this does land. Bunton’s later life mission it seems was to secure free TV licenses for pensioners which has various links to things currently in the news. This is a message the BBC itself seems to be onboard with as, by no coincidence I am sure, there was an ad before the film screened put forward by this same corporation now fighting against major changes to its own existence. See it here:
Ultimately The Duke is a sweet film peppered with nice performances. Jim Broadbent is lovely but he’s not really stretching himself.
My daughter came to see this film with me following Broadbent’s appearance in Paddington 2 (she’s 12, the film is a 12, there are F-bombs but even these are charming). She now thinks Mr. Gruber might have stolen that pop up book himself. She didn’t realise he had previous.
Helen Mirren and Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead are good too but it is some of the smaller parts that really register. Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Goode both appear as characters who give the impression that there must be so much more story behind them. Then there’s Heather Craney who almost steals the show as the clerk to the court, giving so much with the smallest facial expressions occasionally cracking through her professional impartiality.
This is the last feature film from director Roger Mitchell who sadly passed away in September. Having previously given us movies as varied as Notting Hill, Venus, Enduring Love and My Cousin Rachel which have all been linked by showing a certain sense of Britishness. As such this is a good one to end with as there is nothing here, from the Geordie streets to the lawyer’s wigs to the attitudes, that could possibly have come from any other place in the world (apart from the painting itself perhaps, which is essentially Spanish). In fact forget what I said at the start, this doesn’t have a Hollywood ending so much as a Heaton* one.
*a district in Newcastle, but you knew that right?