Review: The Duke Chronicles the True, Very British Story of Art Thievery as Civil Protest

Back in the 1990s, I had a soft spot for British films in which the townspeople all rallied around some cause and simply got things done though sheer will power and gumption. Probably the most successful of these titles was The Full Monty, but if you haven’t seen 1995’s The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (starring Hugh Grant) or 1996’s Brassed Off (starring Ewan McGregor), you don’t know what you’re missing. I’m not sure if this quaint film movement even had a name, but every so often, I’ll see a movie that harkens back to those sweet-natured works, and I’ll get nostalgic. The latest film from the late Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus, Le Week-end) is The Duke, and it very much feels in the vein of these community-based productions, even if the figure at the center of the film is a well-meaning criminal. Michell died in September 2021 at the age of 65.

Set in 1961 London, The Duke stars Jim Broadbent as real-life citizen Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver who was always looking for a cause to get behind, even if doing so caused him to lose his job, his savings, or the affection of his perpetually annoyed wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, who starred in another of these type of films, 2003’s Calendar Girls). When Kempton sees that the government has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds acquiring a long-lost portrait of the Duke of Wellington so it can hang the painting in the National Gallery of London, he becomes incensed, especially since he was thrown in jail for not paying a small tax for his television. His defense is that he has removed the device inside that allows his TV to receive BBC broadcasts, so he shouldn’t have to pay the tax; the government sees it differently. When he finds out about the painting, he wonders why they didn’t spend the money giving every elderly person free licenses for their televisions.

As a means of constructive protest, he walks into the National Gallery and swipes the painting (marking the first and only theft in the gallery’s history). With the help of his younger son (Jackie Bunton, played by Fionn Whitehead), he stashes the painting behind a false back in a bureau in their guest bedroom, and Kempton begins sending “ransom” notes to the authorities, insisting that they give free TV to older folks in exchange for the painting.

The Duke maps out the hills and valleys of the Buntons’ life. Kempton and Dorothy are very much in love with each other, but she is fed up with her husband only thinking about his causes and not about how his actions impact the rest of his family, especially her. He attempts to thwart racism in his new factory job, and gets sacked immediately. So he does his very best to keep the stolen painting in their house a secret, until their older son, Kenny (Jack Bandeira), and his girlfriend discover it when he’s staying with them for a time. Before Dorothy finds out, Kempton decides to quietly return the painting but is caught and put on trial. But his crafty and sympathetic lawyer (Matthew Goode) may be able to convince the jury that Kempton is a good man who simply set out to change an unjust world.

Although certainly not a heavy-hitting, issue-driven work, The Duke has a lighthearted, breezy quality to it that I find in a great many of director Michell’s films. The film isn’t asking us to take to the streets in support of Kempton’s causes, but it does want us to admire his tenacity and willingness to sacrifice his personal freedom for what he believes in, even if the consequences far outweigh the issue. Broadbent clearly admires this man, while Mirren embraces the dowdy, grumpy persona that Dorothy inhabits. 

The characters of the two sons are perhaps a bit underwritten, but I especially liked how much charm and personality Goode puts into his barrister character. He knows exactly what he’s doing, even if nobody else quite sees it, as he refuses to question any of the prosecutor’s witnesses. Actually, his character, Jerremy Hutchinson, was married to actress Peggy Ashcroft at the time (a fact that was brought up during the trial) and he worked on the defense team in the Lady Chatterley obscenity case about a year before defending Bunton. The case seems uniquely woven into the fabric of British society on several levels, and it’s certainly a smarter and deeper tale than some of the other films of its ilk. Far from a great film, it still manages to capture a time, place and group of attitudes to a degree that I found refreshing and thoroughly delightful.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.