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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

The Duke

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

The Duke

Director: Roger Michell

‘The Duke’ is a charming tale based on a true story. Bunton's art theft and political activity thankfully made him a public hero rather than a frail old criminal; occurring at a point in time where this well-intentioned underdog (Bunton liked to refer to himself as a modern day Robin Hood) was respected for his beliefs rather than ridiculed - and at worst, imprisoned - for trying to make the world a better place. (*Compare this with the NSW Government passing legislation to imprison Climate Change (and other 'cause') protestors for up to two years for blocking roads and other facilities ... Shameful.)

“In 1961, Kempton Bunton, a 60-year old taxi driver, stole Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. It was the first (and remains the only) theft in the Gallery's history. Kempton sent ransom notes saying that he would return the painting on condition that the government invested more in care for the elderly -- he had long campaigned for pensioners to receive free television licences.

Beyond the irrepressible Bunton (Jim Broadbent) and his long suffering wife Lilya (Dame Helen Mirren) ‘The Duke’ is a depiction of the suburban life of down-at-heel Britain, with little glimpses of good boys turned bad to make a bit of money on the side (and just as significantly good girls turned bad in the hope of avoiding the poverty and drudgery of their mothers) ….. and what seems to be endless kids playing endless ball games in grimy back streets. You’ll also be shocked at just how old the 60-year old Bunton and his wife appear; more like the 70 and 80-year-olds of our era.

You’ll laugh as the plummy voices of art gallery directors and detectives talk about a highly organised and experienced international criminal gang stealing the masterpiece (think Bunton, a rickety ladder and an open toilet window) and how the incorrigible Bunton becomes a veritable celebrity when he gives the court a glimpse into his soul, his belief in the good nature and well-intentioned values of humanity. You also chuckle when Bunton, scrutinising the portrait of the duke, pronounces that ‘its not very good, is it’.

His canny barrister (Matthew Goode) recognises the charisma of his client and using his charming innocence and a subtle point of law, wins what would appear to be an unwinnable case. Initially the barrister thought the case unwinnable as Bunton had carried the Goya masterpiece back to the National Gallery and admitted all in statements to the police.

This movie has a little twist but I won’t give it away. Rather, I’ll take you on a little fashion detour. The not so bad boy eldest son of Bunton (Jack Bandeira) brings home his hard-as-nails, chain-smoking girlfriend at one point in the film, complete with beehive, winged eye liner and an upholstered bosom that could have put Madonna’s famous conical bustiers to shame!

Did cool girls really wear bras that were quite so lethal??? ‘Pamela’ (Charlotte Spencer) alone is worth the price of a ticket!

image: the hard-as-nails 'Pammy' (Charlotte Spencer)

(... *And do please check the tea cosy that you could once buy at every church fair and fund-raiser. Are they still made I wonder, along with the knitted coat-hangers covers, nylon 'pom poms' to clean the bathtub and big skirted Barbie and Kewpie dolls that covered toilet rolls? Seriously bizarre domestic paraphernalia that I do hope is lovingly housed in a museum somewhere :)

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