In 1961, a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya was stolen from the National Gallery in London. It was eventually returned, and a Yorkshireman by the name of Kempton Bunton was put on trial for its theft.
This true story is the basis of The Duke, pitched as a ‘ridiculously charming’ British comedy, which is not far off the mark.
Why ‘ridiculous’? Because the central character, as played by the venerable character actor Jim Broadbent, is a silly, opinionated old coot with way too many bees in his bonnet. The main one, which drives his long-suffering wife (Helen Mirren) to distraction, is his persistent refusal to pay the TV licence fee, on the not unreasonable grounds that since he never watches the BBC and has even removed the gizmo from his TV that enables it, he shouldn’t have to pay. This doesn’t wash with the licence inspectors who knock on his door, and he’s so stubborn he ends up doing a short stint in prison for it.
When he is fired from his job as a taxi-driver for earbashing his passengers about politics, he revs up his anti-licence campaign, making it a pensioners’ rights issue, and takes it to the halls of power in London. Here he’s given short shrift, but while passing the National Gallery he’s reminded of another bonnet-bee, namely that the much ballyhooed exhibition of the Goya portrait is a waste of taxpayers money that should be spent on battlers rather than on the arty-farty fancies of the elites. This is where he hits on the idea of nicking The Duke and holding it ransom for his cause.
Sure it’s played for laughs in many ways, and many liberties have been taken with the facts, as a swift googling will tell you. But this is one case where you just don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story, although the end twist, involving one of his sons – the ‘good’ one, the other one having been lured onto the dodgy side of the law – is true to the facts.
The Duke is the latest demonstration that when it comes to this kind of human/humane comedy, nobody does it better than the Brits. It’s also a brilliant, memorable and ultimately rather moving character study. Jim Broadbent towers and shines in the role of Bunton, a pompous bore to many but at home a loving husband and father, a self-educated idealist and true eccentric who never got far in life, in financial terms anyway, because he simply could not keep his mouth shut when he saw injustice.
Five stars from me!