Cruel of this movie to mention that Kempton Bunton wrote a gender-flipped Bible-themed play called “The Adventures of Susan Christ” and never show it to us.
In 1961, Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen from London’s National Gallery, but the theft was no slick heist pulled off by international art thieves. No, the improbable culprit was (the improbably named) Kempton Bunton, a retired bus driver and aspiring playwright who pinched the painting — which the gallery had recently acquired for £140,000 of UK taxpayers’ money — as a Robin Hood-esque “attempt to pick the pockets of those who love art more than charity.” The principled Bunton (played here by Jim Broadbent) was, at the time, waging a one-man campaign to convince the government to grant pensioners and veterans free TV licenses, and the Goya theft was his way of publicizing those efforts. It was an eccentric plan, but Broadbent leans fully into his status as a UK national treasure here, making oddball Bunton a deeply sympathetic and warm figure because of (not despite) those quirks. Thanks to his performance — and the note-perfect direction of the late, great Roger Michell — a quirky footnote of history becomes a sweet, unexpectedly moving story about solidarity and the power of the underdog.
The Duke fits comfortably into a certain kind of mold: it’s the kind of zippily paced movie that reliably plays in your local cinema’s weekday matinee screening slot. That doesn’t mean the filmmaking is all cookie-cutter crowd-pleasing style, though: with a director like Michell at the helm, there are lots of inspired little touches that elevate it (not to mention a surprising number of f-bombs that thumb their nose at our PG expectations for this kind of fare). The Duke’s visuals are of particular note: the cinematography is niftily designed to seamlessly blend in with archival footage from the period, and there are some more clever winks to the ‘60s via the use of split-screens to transition between scenes. It’s thoughtful little surprises like this that set The Duke above the kind of formulaic storytelling we might expect from a movie of this kind.