“The Duke” tells the little-known story of the breakage of Goya’s painting – ARTnews.com

According to the story, in 1969 Kempton Bunton, a 61-year-old taxi driver, snuck into the National Gallery in London and kidnapped Francisco de Goya’s portrait. The Duke of Wellington (1814), before sinking into the night. The theft became national news and Britain stepped up to hunt down the thief, who was believed to be an expert criminal mastermind.

Bunton evaded police for about four years and probably could have stayed longer, as he ended up surrendering to authorities and returning the missing Goya. But in The Duke, a dramatic retelling of the tale which aired in the United States on April 22, we learn that the middle-aged taxi driver was not the real crook who got away with a masterpiece; it was his son, John. This revelation first became public in 2012.

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Directed by the late Roger Michell (of Notting Hill fame), the film delves into the previously unknown story of the flight, which tells the story from the family’s perspective. Bunton’s grandson, Christopher, approached Nicky Bentham, founder of Neon Films, the film’s production company, offering this approach a few years ago.

The background is that Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren) are in bad shape, at least financially. A disabled and semi-retired war veteran, Bunton often struggled to make ends meet, though this was due, in part, to his eccentric and moral personality, his wife’s undying grief.

Bunton’s interest in Goya Duke of Wellington stems from his activism – sort of. One of his crusades was over whether or not older people should be required to pay for UK television licenses. He was arrested several times for refusing to pay the license in protest. When Bunton learns that the British government has spent £140,000 to guard The Duke of Wellington in the country in 1961, after the work was auctioned off by Sotheby’s and almost sold to the great American collector Charles Wrightsman. (A foundation and the government were able to raise the £140,000 needed to match Wrightsman’s winning bid and guarantee his stay.) The high price disgusted Bunton.

film poster

Poster “The Duke”.
Sony Classics

“Taxpayers like you and me are paying for this painting,” Bunton says at the start of the film. Dorothy quickly jokes, “Since when have you been paying taxes?” Bunton ignores the question and rushes off: “Spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked portrait by a drunken Spaniard of a duke who was a bastard to his men and voted against universal suffrage!”

Thus, the ground is set for a theft motivated by a strong sense of injustice, but it is ultimately Jackie who steals the painting. (No explanation is given as to why Bunton’s son’s name was changed from John to Jackie for the film.) The way the film portrays him, Jackie, inspired by his father, somewhat impulsively snuck into the museum at night while security sensors were closed to allow a janitor to make his rounds and grabbed the painting. In the film, he soon confesses his crime to his father, who immediately insists on concocting a story that he was behind the heist, should the authorities ever find out.

The Duke comes down to the loving portrait of a family, far from the Ocean’s Eleven–type of heist film that many moviegoers might expect based on the film’s premise. The Buntons are affectionate and humorous towards each other, and father and son do what they can to protect Dorothy from the truth: Hidden in their closet is a priceless piece of art that threatens to destroy the whole family. But eventually, Dorothy finds out, and Bunton hands over the painting – and himself. But after exciting and unexpected court proceedings, Bunton walks away without any jail time.

There are, however, certain aspects of The Duke which leave much to be desired. In particular, the film’s effort to shed light on Dorothy’s life falls flat. Dorothy is a sensible woman who has to beg her husband to focus on her family’s needs. In order to spend more time with Dorothy, she is given a confidante in a wealthy woman whose house Dorothy cleans. Her employer, who listens closely to Dorothy, goes out of her way to offer support, whether it’s signing Kempton’s petition for TV licenses for retirees or showing up at her trial. This cross-class alliance, while possible, inevitably rings a bit hollow.

Ultimately, however, The Duke is a sweet film that provides insight into the true and unusual story of this family.

About Catharine C. Bean

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