‘The Duke’ unfurls startling real-life Goya heist

Mike Eley, BSC/Pathe UK/Sony Pictures Classics
Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren star as couple Kempton and Dorothy Bunton in “The Duke,” set in the 1960s.

“The Duke” is a genial British entertainment that, at its best, reminded me a bit of those wonderful postwar Ealing Studio films like “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Ladykillers.” The new movie stars Jim Broadbent as the real-life Kempton Bunton, a highly eccentric, 60-something pensioner who, in 1961, improbably helped engineer one of the greatest art heists of the 20th century, making off with Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” from London’s National Gallery.

The portrait had been purchased by an American millionaire, and in a highly publicized display of national pride, the British government bought it back – for £140,000, or about $390,000 – to showcase in the museum. 

Kempton, a self-proclaimed advocate for commoners like himself, didn’t think it right for the government to spend the people’s money on such a thing when those funds could instead help veterans and impoverished people. Larceny was never part of his plan; he simply wanted the government to do the right thing in exchange for the return of the painting.

Why We Wrote This

What was behind the theft of a Goya masterpiece from London’s National Gallery? A new film, inspired by actual events, offers a lens on class issues – and the meaning of impossible.

With his gangly frame and whiny, stentorian bellow, floppy hat, and ever-present pipe, the perfectly cast Broadbent seems almost Dickensian. Only on the surface does Kempton resemble a harmless crank. Underneath it all, he’s a raging idealist, as even his long-suffering wife, Dorothy, played by Helen Mirren, is loath to admit. He mourns the bygone accidental death of their teenage daughter, for which he unaccountably blames himself, and in his ample free time, churns out reams of unproduced plays touching on his grief.

It’s clear that Dorothy loves Kempton despite the fact that his unapologetic calls for social justice are constantly losing him jobs. (A taxi company fires him because his passengers complain he proclaims too much.) At times his wife wields her knitting needles as if they were daggers to be deployed, but that’s just for show. There’s a lovely impromptu moment when Kempton suddenly sweeps a scowling Dorothy off her feet in their kitchen and waltzes her, comparing her to Ginger Rogers. Her wide, abrupt smile tells you everything you need to know about their marriage.

I wish Mirren’s role here was a bit more substantial. But this elegant performer, who has played queens, looks completely at home as a cleaning woman to the wealthy who lives in a run-down brick row house in industrial Newcastle. Her Dorothy is equally fastidious when it comes to cleanliness in her home. She won’t tolerate even good-natured curse words from her two sons, the ne’er-do-well Kenny (Jack Bandeira) and Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), who dotes on his father. “Language!” she shouts at them.

So, how did Kempton pull off such a daring theft? The film – written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman and directed by Roger Michell, his last before his death in 2021 – is necessarily cagey about the details until the very end, and I don’t wish to spoil the fun for those not already in the know.

But the theft itself, and the subsequent (overdone) trial scene that functions as its prologue and aftermath, are in many ways secondary to the film’s humane charms. What’s best about “The Duke” are its witty grace notes, such as the scene where Kempton the working-class autodidact makes it known he prefers Chekhov to Shakespeare because the Bard is “overfond of his kings.” Or the moment when he takes a good look at the stolen painting, hidden away in a closet in his home, and proclaims to Jackie, “It’s not very good, is it?”

The movie’s running joke is that the bumbling British authorities are convinced a highly sophisticated criminal ring is responsible for the theft, which only serves to emphasize this story’s class-based perspective. The upper-crusters simply can’t imagine that someone like Kempton could pull off such a thing. Thanks to this movie, we certainly can. “The Duke” vindicates Kempton’s craziness by demonstrating that he wasn’t so crazy after all.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “The Duke” rolls out in theaters starting April 22. It is rated R for language and brief sexuality. 

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