Sometimes it feels like the common man doesn’t get a fair crack of the whip. However true that might be these days, it was most definitely the case in the 1960s when Newcastle native Kempton Bunton confessed to stealing Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
Bunton’s story is one of the underdog variety and is excellently brought to life by the late Roger Michell (Notting Hill). The wonderful Jim Broadbent portrays Bunton, one of these perpetual victim types. Whether or not you agree him is a question of politics, or class.
Bunton’s gripe this time is with the Home Office. Why should OAPs pay for a television license? Especially if they’re war veterans or widows, and especially if they’ve pulled out the piece of the telly that allows it to receive the BBC. While Bunton is content to watch ITV and constantly complain to his long-suffering wife (Helen Mirren), the bourgeoise down in London have decided to spend £140,000 of the taxpayer’s money on the eponymous Goya painting. The absolute brass neck of it.
There are some very good things about this film that are worth pointing out. It has to be lauded for managing to be very, well, British. The Brits love this kind of fare and, whether you like it or not, it takes precision engineering to make that happen to this extent. Michell captures that period of history in northern England perfectly. The sixties before it started swinging. The purgatory between the Germans invading Europe and British popstars invading America.
Bunton gets the audience he had always craved when he goes from soapbox to witness box. Even his upper-class barrister is charmed by his everyman persona and quick wit. At one point he exclaims to a packed courtroom at the Old Bailey, “I wasn’t named for [Kempton] Racecourse, although it’s quite possible I was conceived there”.
The story of The Duke is a brilliant one. It keeps the viewer engaged before ending on a sentimental note as the idealist Bunton explains his socialist philosophy, “people are all just single bricks, but put them together and you make a house”. “I am you, and you are me”. Even if you view Bunton as a bone-idle loudmouthed nuisance, his philosophy still isn’t a bad one to live your life by. At the end of the day, all anybody wants is a fair shot.