The Duke review – Jim Broadbent steals show in warm-hearted 60s-set crime caper | Movies

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For what has become his final feature film, director Roger Michell made this sweet-natured and genial comedy in the spirit of Ealing, which bobs up like a ping pong ball on a water-fountain. It is based on the true story of Kempton Bunton, the Newcastle bus driver who in 1965 was had up at the Old Bailey for stealing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery. The mystery of its disappearance had so electrified the media that there was even a gag about it in the James Bond film Dr No, using a copy personally painted by the legendary production designer Ken Adam, which was itself stolen. Maybe there should be a film about that as well.

The court heard this was Bunton’s protest at government misuse of taxpayers’ money (the painting had been saved for the nation at some cost) and to publicise his demand for pensioners to be given free TV licences. (This film features the usual “historical coda” sentences over the closing credits, and one sentimentally records that free TV licences for the over-75s were finally introduced in 2000. But no mention of these being taken away again in 2020.)

If this was actually an Ealing picture, Stanley Holloway might have taken the lead role; as it is, Jim Broadbent plays the cussed and bloody-minded Bunton, a pipe-smoking individualist, autodidact and working man: JB Priestley without the establishment cachet or the university degree. He writes dozens of unpublished novels and unproduced plays, emotionally driven by the tragic death of his daughter, and is briefly imprisoned for refusing to pay his licence on the grounds that he has removed the cathode that allows his set to receive the BBC. (It should be said that there is something a little bit Brexity about him.) His exasperated but loving wife Dorothy is played by Helen Mirren, who gives her all to this slightly underwritten role – at one stage knitting so fiercely that the needles clash like duellists’ sabres. His loyal, decent son Jackie is played by Fionn Whitehead and Jackie’s brother Kenny – imagined here as a bit of a ne’er-do-well – is played by Jack Bandeira. Finally, Bunton makes a trip to London to petition for his cause, a path that takes him to the National Gallery.

The screenplay, co-written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, may not be 100% historically accurate – could you make a “food order” of fish and chips in a pub in the early 60s? – but it amusingly shows how the police and gallery authorities, anxious to minimise their embarrassment, insisted this audacious crime had to be the work of a sophisticated international criminal gang. And when Bunton’s flowery anonymous notes finally come to light revealing him to be the culprit, the Tory home secretary Rab Butler (robustly played by Richard McCabe) snorts at his rhyming of “fortitude” and “sportitude” and says: “The man’s a bloody poet! Perhaps we can lock WH Auden up at last!”

The story of Bunton and the Duke’s portrait is very unusual for a high-concept Britpic in that the true story has a ready-made two-part plot, revealing a mystery you didn’t know was there. There is a second act still to come just before the end, a narrative sting in the tail that is adroitly concealed in the structuring and editing. Broadbent’s performance satisfyingly shows both the public and the private man to be the same: the stubborn eccentric and the individualist who drives Dorothy up the wall, and the born standup comic who in court gets laughs from the jury and the press gallery. There is a fair bit of sentimentality here, but an awful lot of affection and energy as well.

The Duke is released on 25 February in cinemas.



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