A true heist story, “The Duke” mixes drama and comedy with a star cast!
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
(1) Jim Broadbent plays 60-year-old Kempton Bunton who, in 1961, was arrested and tried for stealing the Francisco de Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington from The National Gallery. Bunton speaks from the witness stand during the trial. (2) His son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) examines the painting at the gallery.
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Blu-ray; 2022; R for profanity, and brief sexuality; streaming via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Only one, a very short making-of documentary
BRITISH DIRECTOR Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”; “My Cousin Rachel”; “The Mother”), who died last year, left a gift to the film world with his final feature, “The Duke.” Based on real people and a real incident, it’s the story of an angry man from Newcastle on Tyne, England. The fabulous Jim Broadbent plays 60-year-old Kempton Bunton who, in 1961, was arrested and tried for stealing a painting from London’s National Gallery.
When we first meet Bunton, he’s gotten himself into trouble for not paying for a television license, which he considers outrageous and unfair, especially to “pensioners” (i.e., elderly retirees on a fixed income). His “protest” buys him a couple of weeks in jail. But that doesn’t stop him from expressing his anger, which he does on a soapbox, shouting his opinions to passersby. Dorothy, Bunton’s long-suffering wife (the great Helen Mirren) is on the verge of leaving her husband, but he promises he’ll get a steady job and stay out of trouble, and she relents.
When Bunton learns that the government has acquired a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya for the museum, and the high price paid for it, he’s furious at what he sees as a ridiculous waste of taxpayers’ money. That money, he feels, should be used to help the needy. We watch Bunton as he breaks into the National Gallery one night and steals the painting. While the authorities assume the theft was accomplished by some hardened criminal gang, Bunton begins sending anonymous letters to the police, offering to return the painting in exchange for the amount paid for it. All this is happening with the help and knowledge of his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and all sorts of ploys to keep the painting – and the caper – hidden from Dorothy. To tell anymore of the story would spoil it, and this is such a delightful gem of a film, filled with surprises and humor and emotion, I can only encourage readers to see it and promise you’re in for a big treat.
All the performances are absolute perfection, with Broadbent and Mirren at the top of their game. The screenplay is terrific and, of course, knowing that it all really happened makes it that much more enjoyable.
(1) “The Duke” was first screened at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020 during COVID-19. It finally arrived at U.K. theaters in February 2022. (2) Bunton pleads “Not Guilty” during the trial. (3) Clerk of the Court (Heather Craney) reads the charges against Mr. Bunton. (4) Helen Mirren plays Mrs. Dorothy Bunton, a housekeeper, and babysitter for a local councilor and his wife (Anna Maxwell Martin). (5) Television Licence Inspector Price Franklin (Charlie Richmond) shows his ID to Jackie Bunton. (6) Bunton removes the BBC module from the television to bypass the license fee.
This Sony Blu-ray looks terrific in its 1080p transfer sourced from the 2K master (2.35:1 aspect ratio), with consistent fine detail, perfect color saturation, and natural skin tones from cinematographer Mike Eley. Archival footage of London in the 1950s adds to the rich variety of imagery and texture.
The audio is also excellent and well-balanced. Sound effects are realistic and George Fenton’s score never intrudes. The wonderful dialogue is always clear, and English subtitles are available if needed.
The one letdown is “Making ‘The Duke,’” the title of which might lead viewers to think it was an actual documentary. It’s basically a 3-minute promo, with some words from Michell, Broadbent, Mirren, and Nicky Bentham, a producer. About the film, Mirren notes, “If it wasn’t all true, you’d want to take it with a pinch of salt.”
Michell explains that this was “the only time in its history that anything was stolen from the National Gallery.” The director says the film is “about a small man telling truth to power.” Says Bentham, “What adds to the drama of the story is that the incident was such a huge embarrassment to the establishment.”
Broadbent calls the script “delicious to read, and very funny … a quintessential British film.” “It’s very much in the vein of the early Ealing comedies,” says Mirren, who also calls it “very endearing, very sweet.” Michell sums it up, “[‘The Duke’] is uplifting and fun, and leaves a big smacking smile on your face!”
— Peggy Earle
(1&2) The National Gallery holds a press conference to announce they secured the portrait of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington after raising £140,000 pounds. (3) The Bunton brothers - Jackie and Kenny (Jack Bandeira) who tries to convince his young brother to drive a getaway car for a robbery. (4) The Bunton family gathers around the telly, as Kempton continues his petition campaign so pensioners wouldn’t have to pay for a TV license.
(1) Kempton says he will return the Duke of Wellington portrait if the government will exempt the elderly from paying the TV license. He returns the portrait and confesses to the theft. (2) Jackie tells his mother about his involvement. (3) Jackie eyes the portrait at the gallery and he tells his father the insurance will pay out 10 percent for its safe return. (4-6) Kempton becomes a folk hero during the trial and serves time at the Durham prison.