Grand theft, what oh!

Patrick Mulcahy on a comic twist to Goya heist

Outside of the films of Ken Loach, British cinema has always had a difficulty with portraying the working class. Essentially, they are either problematised – vividly evidenced by the depiction of domestic violence in Gary Oldman’s 1997 film, Nil by Mouth – or else turned into comic characters, notoriously encapsulated by the 2004 box-office flop Sex Lives of the Potato Men. Most of British cinema is preoccupied with the middle or upper middle class, with the working class relegated to the British gangster genre; people from poor socio-economic backgrounds with agency must automatically be criminals or else are cast as victims. Community spirit once exhibited by the working poor has been replaced by individualism, nurtured by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated semi-autobiographical film Belfast offers a glimpse of a community that once looked out for one another (more spoken about than shown); but for the most part, working-class communities are divided by suspicion, the thought that your neighbour could be a strike-breaker or from another culture entirely.

The Duke, written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman and directed by Roger Michell, tells the story of retired bus driver, amateur playwright and social activist Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) who was charged with the 1961 theft of Francisco Goya’s 1812 portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. Bean and Coleman twist the facts a little – the painting took four years to recover – in order to give the story some dramatic momentum. Michell employs split screens and a jazzy soundtrack to inject some pace and stages Bunton’s account of how he stole it. Bunton’s plan, according to the film, was never to keep it, but rather to ransom it to obtain free television licences for the over-sixty-fives, an issue for which he campaigned vigorously. He is depicted in a long line of delusional social complainants, a Northern cousin to Tony Hancock’s screen persona.

The film’s starting point – Bunton’s attempt to avoid paying his television licence – is somewhat niche. Indeed, his struggle to be heard by the British Broadcasting Corporation – his plays, including his latest, ‘The Adventures of Susan Christ’ are summarily rejected – plays into the so-called culture war against the corporation, that the BBC is not representative of wider society and therefore doesn’t deserve state support. The current secretary of state for culture, media and sport is angling for the BBC to have to prove itself commercially, threatening the abolition of the television licence fee – a threat strangely not aimed at opera houses. Back in the 1960s, the BBC did become more representative. Ken Loach started his career there, while Play for Today brought theatre to the masses, showcasing work by Trevor Griffiths, Mike Leigh and David Hare. ITV’s content, by contrast, is defined by true crime stories, game shows and reality television – an indictment of the commercial model.

Broadbent’s Kempton is a chipper family man, who is contrasted with his wife, Dorothy (Helen Mirren). She makes a spectacular appearance, gripping the side of a fireplace as she is shown cleaning it; it is one of the most expressive shots in Michell’s career. Dorothy is dour, humourless and intolerant of her husband’s principles – she is happy to pay the television licence. She is also given a character arc, refusing to mourn the death of daughter Susan, the inspiration behind Kempton’s plays.

Once the painting is stolen, the film turns on Kempton’s attempt to extract a ransom from the National Gallery, as he contacts ‘the people’s newspaper’, the Daily Mirror. The police suspect a criminal gang, with Kempton escaping their notice.

The tone is comic, but there is a heavy dose of pathos, with Kempton taking a job at a bakery and faking bringing home damaged produce. He stands up for a Pakistani co-worker, Javid (Ashley Kumar), that results in Kempton being fired. He also contends with the reappearance of his second son, Kenny (Jack Bandeira), who has a criminal past.

Michell and his screenwriters have twisted the facts to fit a jaunty caper movie, that really only comes into its own in the trial scene, with Kempton defended by Jeremy Hutchinson QC (Matthew Goode). The behaviour of Kempton and his supporters in the courtroom generate some long-overdue laughs.

The attempt to stay true to Kempton’s obsessions – emphasising the specific to create the universal – may nevertheless alienate audiences outside the UK. Ultimately, this is a conflict between the establishment and the little man.

The makers save their best joke for last, with a clip from an iconic British movie that references the theft. However, the film doesn’t deliver the warm, crowd-rousing riposte to the establishment that you hope for. Essentially, Kempton is another in a long line of British failures. He emerges with some dignity but doesn’t stick in the mind.

The Duke is on general release.

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