The Duke (12A): Uplifting comedy for the soul

4 min

The Duke UK Official Trailer Courtesy Of Pathé UK

Championing the underdog

The Silver Screen has long championed the underdog. It’s a Wonderful Life. The Shawshank Redemption. Hidden Figures. A League of their Own. Thelma and Louise. Even Die Hard sees the good guy hampered by a lack of shoes and socks. 

A sense of injustice is the heart and soul of many a much-loved movie. It’s the feeling we all share when munching on the popcorn and internally cheering for our belittled champion to triumph over adversity. 

Will this wrong be righted? Will our brave hero, or heroine, succeed? Will they be able to do so, despite all the odds being stacked against them?

The Duke (12A) certainly provides us with a loveable underdog in the form of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton. The year is 1961 and the Cold War is reaching fever pitch. 

Britain may have been in the crosshairs of Soviet bombers, and the planet might have been hurtling towards a potential Armageddon, but Bunton had other things on his mind. TV licences for starters.

It was going to be a 39 year wait before the over 75s were to receive a free licence to watch telly. Bunton wanted change. And he wasn’t going to wait until the year 2000 before tuning into the Beeb for nowt. No, sirree.  

His plan was to take Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the walls of the National Gallery and hold it hostage until his social justice demands were met. 

Jim Broadbent plays the role of hapless Bunton who faced 10 years jail time for the theft. His wife, Lilya Frances (Dame Helen Mirren) is shocked when she discovers ‘a stolen masterpiece in my wardrobe.’ 

Having successful squirreled away the painting, ransom notes were sent demanding better care for the elderly, and, of course, free television licences. The film notes how the police were convinced it was the work of a ‘highly professional international gang.’

At the time, the nation was gripped by its disappearance. Surely this had to be the work of a criminal mastermind: someone who could bypass all the latest security to grab the painting.

Bond fans will remember Sean Connery spotting The Duke in the lair of his arch nemesis, Dr Julius No. It was Connery’s first outing as 007 and the painting was still missing at the time of its release (1962).

Then there was the reward money. An offer of £5000 was made (roughly equivalent to £100,000 today).  

The tabloids reporting hit fever pitch when it emerged that the culprit wasn’t a sinister ‘Dr No’ character but a pensioner from Newcastle. 

A masterplan to steal a masterpiece

A man who had simply climbed through a window before unhooking the painting from the wall – and then left the same way. 

He had undertaken reconnaissance in the guise of an art lover. He managed to bypass the alarm system by simply asking a guard if it was ever switched off. 

The answer was they were turned off just before the gallery opened in the morning (things would be thankfully different today). 

Does the film give us a chuckle? Oh, yes. In fact, bits of it are laugh out loud moments, and it certainly happily amuses for its 96-minute run time. 

It’s also hugely sentimental with Bunton telling the court he only ‘borrowed’ the Goya to ‘do a bit of good in this world.’ There’s an added sense of poignancy as this would be director Roger Michell’s last film.   

Goya’s The Duke now hangs just yards away from one depicting his old adversary, Napoleon. Guards keep a steady and steely eye on it to ensure the Bunton’s theft remains the only one in the gallery’s 198-year history.

The film is a real ‘pick me up’ comedy which beautifully captures a yesteryear sense of innocence. At the same time, it never loses sight on social injustices which befell people in 1960s’ Britain.    

Film trailer and photography kindly provided to Break Time News by Pathé UK.

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