May 13, 2022 | LIFE | By Frances Thyer | Illustration by Sierra Romero
In August of 1961, the National Gallery suffered its first art theft in 137 years when Arthur Wellesley’s “The Duke of Ellington”disappeared overnight. Now, more than 60 years later, the endearing story of an elderly man from northeast England turned expert art thief is finally being told.
Kempton Bunton, played by Jim Broadbent, was the 61-year-old retiree who returned the painting voluntarily and surrendered to the police four years after the theft took place. During the time that the piece was missing, requests were made for millions of dollars to go to charity in exchange for The Duke’s return. Chris Bunton, Kempton’s grandson, has said that some dramatic license was taken to the original story in “The Duke”.
However, he admits that every scene is based on the true events.
This determination to stick with the bones of the story allows for “The Duke” to be both an effective period piece and emotional dive into interpersonal relationships. Some of the most compelling moments in the film take place at the courthouse, where dialogue has been borrowed from the original court proceedings. Broadbent says that the authenticity of the narrative is what allowed for the film to be so interesting, as the story wouldn’t have been believable otherwise.
“This nutty idea about this strange man who had stolen a picture from the National Gallery is too unlikely to be real, but the fact that it isreal made it so interesting,” said Broadbent.
Filmed in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Duke” presents a story with the good in human nature at its core. The film moves from comedic moments of Bunton as he hears government officials say that the painting has almost certainly been stolen by “a trained commander” to lovely sequences of Bunton and his wife dancing in the kitchen.
We see Bunton sitting on a street corner with his son as they attempt to get signatures for a petition, arguing for access to free TV licenses for retirees as people stroll by them with indifference. While based on a true story taking place in 1961, the film manages to examine core issues of social justice that are equally (if not more) relevant given the state of our current world.
“The Duke” was director Roger Michell’s final film, as he recently passed away in September of 2021. Throughout his 40-year career, Michell has been responsible for directing films from “Notting Hill” to “Elizabeth.” As a director without an obvious signature, Michell’s years of experience are illuminated in “The Duke” by a balance between the wonderfully ironic and beautifully tender.
If you are looking for a movie to see in theaters this weekend, “The Duke” provides an energetic and inspired take on an adorable (and true) story. The seemingly simple story of an art theft is transformed into a complex understanding of human nature with a twist ending that you won’t want to miss.
“The Duke” is now playing in theaters.