The Duke | ★★★★ | Now playing in theaters
In the early morning hours of August 21, 1961, Francisco de Goya’s painting “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” was stolen from the National Gallery in London. The Crown had recently purchased the famous painting for £140,000, and it was a big deal in the papers. Police were baffled by the crime and concluded that the theft was the work of a crack squad of international art thieves.
The painting was later returned by a neighborhood activist and semiretired taxi driver with the admirable name of Kempton Bunton. Outraged at the price the government had paid, Bunton had planned to hold the painting hostage until £140,000 was paid out to charitable causes, including free TV for pensioners.
At his subsequent trial, Bunton confessed that he had stolen the painting by simply climbing through a bathroom window while the alarm system was deactivated for the cleaners. The caper was highly embarrassing for London law enforcement, and Bunton became a folk hero to anti-establishment British people.
It’s a great story, it’s all true, and it’s depicted more or less faithfully in The Duke, the charming and nimble comedy opening in local theaters this week. The Duke is a throwback kind of movie—an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser with a quietly brilliant script and great lead performances from old pros Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) keeps a lightly comic tone throughout, but he also digs into the family dynamics of the Bunton family. Kempton and his wife Dorothy are still in pain from the loss of their teenage daughter 13 years prior, and the script has some things to say about the toxic nature of unprocessed grief.
The film layers in some spiky social critique, too, as it addresses the politics behind Kempton’s principled stand. The little details add up, and references to Martin Luther King Jr. and George Orwell are there for a reason. Kempton believes deeply in working toward the common good and treating all people fairly. His convictions cause trouble in the class-conscious society of early 1960s Britain, and they have some contemporary American resonance too.
The film succeeds in threading these various textures together while keeping the comic caper plot moving forward. The jokes are funnier because they’re character driven, and we come to care about these people. Kempton, for instance, may be England’s luckiest thief, but he’s the world’s worst liar. His attempts to hide the theft from Dorothy result in panicked improvisations that backfire more or less instantly. Mirren and Broadbent play these scenes with virtuoso comic timing.
The supporting characters, meanwhile, riff on the classic comedy mode of the British eccentric, like Kempton’s female supervisor at the taxi depot. In the later courtroom scenes, one tightly wound bureaucrat gets laughs from his hairpiece alone. Sharp-eyed Anglophiles might catch some visual gags concerning that most British of breakfast foodstuffs, the blood sausage (which is great).
The Duke is professional-grade British comedy in a low-key register, the kind of gentle import that used to be a staple in American art house theaters. It’s heartwarming and funny, and it develops its more ambitious themes subtly. This was director Michell’s last film; he passed away last September.
One final note: Michell throws in an unexpected plot twist toward the end of the story. This twist, also based on real events, comes from more recent disclosures about the original theft. So don’t read ahead about the Kempton Bunton case if you want to enjoy the surprise. (And you do.)
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