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The Duke

Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren star in this lively and likeable based-on-a-true-story heist caper about the 1961 theft of Francisco Goya’s 'Portrait of the Duke of Wellington'.
By Sarah Ward
March 31, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
March 31, 2022
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Back in 1962, in the first-ever Bond film Dr No, the suave, Scottish-accented, Sean Connery-starring version of 007 admires a painting in the eponymous evil villain's underwater lair. That picture: Francisco Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. The artwork itself is very much real, too, although the genuine article doesn't appear in the feature. Even if the filmmakers had wanted to use the actual piece, it was missing at the time. In fact, making a joke about that exact situation is why the portrait is even referenced in Dr No. That's quite the situation: the debut big-screen instalment in one of cinema's most famous and longest-running franchises, and a saga about super spies and formidable villains at that, including a gag about a real-life art heist. The truth behind the painting's disappearance is even more fantastical, however, as The Duke captures.

The year prior to Bond's first martini, a mere 19 days after the early 19th-century Goya piece was put on display in the National Gallery in London, the portrait was stolen. Unsurprisingly, the pilfering earned plenty of attention — especially given that the government-owned institution had bought the picture for the hefty sum of £140,000, which'd likely be almost £3 million today. International master criminals were suspected. Years passed, two more 007 movies hit cinemas, and there was zero sign of the artwork or the culprit. And, that might've remained the case if eccentric Newcastle sexagenarian Kempton Bunton hadn't turned himself in in 1965, advising that he'd gotten light-fingered in protest at the obscene amount spent on Portrait of the Duke of Wellington using taxpayer funds — money that could've been better deployed to provide pensioners with TV licenses, a cause Bunton had openly campaigned for (and even been imprisoned over after refusing to pay his own television fee).

First, the not-at-all-inconsequential detail that's incongruous with glueing your eyes to the small screen Down Under: the charge that many countries collect for watching the box. Australia and New Zealand both abolished it decades ago, but it remains compulsory in the UK to this day. As played by Jim Broadbent (Six Minutes to Midnight), Bunton is fiercely opposed to paying, much to the embarrassment of his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, Fast and Furious 9) whenever the license inspectors come calling. He's even in London with his son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead, Voyagers) to attempt to spread the word about his fight against the TV fee for pensioners when Goya's painting is taken — that, and to get the BBC to produce the television scripts he devotedly pens and sends in, but receives no interest back from the broadcaster.

Even the Bond franchise couldn't have dreamed up these specifics. The Duke's true tale is far wilder than fiction, and also so strange that it can only spring from reality. Directed by Roger Michell (My Cousin Rachel, Blackbird) — marking the British filmmaker's last fictional feature before his 2021 passing — it delivers its story with some light tinkering here and there, but the whole episode still makes for charming viewing. Much of the minutiae is shared during Bunton's court case, which could've jumped out of a Frank Capra movie; that's the feel-good vibe the movie shoots for and easily hits. Such a move couldn't be more astute for a flick that surveys an incident from more than half a century ago, but reaches screens in a world where the chasm between the haves and the have-nots just keeps widening. Yes, it's basically a pensioner-and-painting version of Robin Hood.

Decrying the gap between the wealthy and the not-so, calling out government priorities that only broaden that divide, fighting against injustice, sporting a healthy distrust of the powers that be: these all flicker through Bunton, his TV license crusade and his portrait-stealing trial, and through the movie itself. Michell and playwrights-turned-screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (Young Marx) aren't shy about the anti-authoritarian sentiment, but package it up with can-do underdog cheekiness — the brazenness of the little guy sticking it to the man, naturally. That class clash gives The Duke depth as it dances through its caper, and does so with an upbeat, congenial and even farcical tone. Here, a feature can stress a point about the money-coveting state of the world and its impact upon the working class, and it can have an affable time saying it. Most opportunities to surprise disappear along the way, but the result is endearing and likeable rather than routine or pandering.

The Duke's story was always going to demand notice, but it mightn't have proven so pleasing — so crowd-pleasing, to be precise — with any other casting. Although he ensures that it appears otherwise, the ever-reliable Broadbent doesn't have a simple role; veer too far in one direction and Bunton could've been seen as foolish, tip over to the other side too forcefully and he might've just been lecturing and scolding. When it comes to balancing the amiable and the passionate (someone winsome but with the strength of his convictions), the veteran on-screen talent hits the jackpot. Mirren and Whitehead's parts have fewer layers, but they each turn in engaging performances. And in Mirren's case, after her aforementioned spot in the Fast and Furious franchise, plus The Good Liar and Woman in Gold on her recent-ish resume, her love of heists and/or subterfuge shines through from beneath Dorothy's sterner surface.

There's a cosiness and gentleness to The Duke, and an ease, sentimentality and sweetness. They all couldn't suit the film better, actually. With cinematographer Mike Eley (The Dig, Off the Rails), Michell gives the movie a comforting look and feel, too,  but it's also lively, resonant and charismatic as well. It's little wonder, then, that feature slides nicely into the director's body of work alongside the likes of Notting Hill, Venus and Le Week-End. As many of those pictures did — and the tonally heavier The Mother and Enduring Love as well — The Duke has more than just entertaining in mind, though. Charting an escapade that no screenwriter could've convincingly conjured up, it rallies against societal divides and also wades through grief. Little is too shaken or stirred, but it all goes down smoothly and delightfully — and with some bite.

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