Who is The Duke? you might be wondering, if you haven’t seen or read anything about this new film. There’s only a passing reference to the man (a former British Prime Minister) because the starring role in this story goes to an ordinary 60ish bloke by the name of Kempton Bunton. “The Duke” is just a painting, although it’s not just any painting.
The film opens with Bunton on trial in London and flashes back.
The year is 1961. Kempton Bunton lives in Newcastle with his long-suffering wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren), two adult sons, and the memory of a beloved daughter who died in an accident at eighteen. Kempton can’t seem to hold a job. He’s fired as a taxi-driver for mouthing off to his customers; he finds work at a commercial bakery where he talks too much on the assembly line and commits the unforgivable sin of objecting to the boss’s racist treatment of another employee. Dorothy has a steady job as a housecleaner but constantly worries that her husband’s shameful behavior will get her fired too. Kempton recently did some prison time for refusing to pay the TV license fee. The fee helps fund the BBC, but Kempton removed the BBC plug from the back of his TV and says he shouldn’t have to pay. In fact, he doesn’t think any old-age pensioner (OAP) should have to pay the fee. “Television is the modern cure for loneliness,” he says, and many OAPs are especially lonely and short on money. He starts a petition and collects signatures.
Then Kempton hears that the government has just paid 140,000 pounds for a smallish portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya. This was to prevent another buyer from whisking the painting away to America. Kempton is outraged, because that sum could have paid the TV licensing fee for thousands of OAPs. Soon he’s off to London with Dorothy’s grudging consent. He’ll take his petition straight to Parliament, and while he’s there, he’ll talk to the BBC about producing one of his plays (he writes in his spare time), which was inspired by his daughter’s accident. Parliament doesn’t give him the time of day. The BBC tells him, “It’s difficult to find an audience for plays about grief.” He visits the National Gallery, where “The Duke” is on display, and returns home the next day as the media begins to report the overnight theft of the painting. The authorities believe the crooks were a “well-funded, highly professional international gang.” Are they kidding? We, the audience, have seen Kempton in action.
To this day, the theft of the painting is the only art theft in the museum’s history. The flesh-and-blood Duke (for your information) made his reputation in the military and was one of the commanders at the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon suffered defeat in 1815.
Kempton hides the painting in a secret wardrobe compartment in his house, hoping his wife won’t discover it. He sends anonymous letters to a London newspaper promising the return of the painting if the government does away with the TV licensing fee for OAPs. The authorities think the sender is a crackpot. Ultimately Kempton returns the painting unharmed and is put on trial.
There’s a plot twist that I won’t reveal, but it’s impossible to spoil the end of the film by revealing some of what Kempton says when he’s called to the stand to testify. He makes everyone laugh, including the judge, but he also says this: “Every time an old pensioner is cut off from the British populace, the nation grows smaller in stature.” He puts his faith in humanity, “not in God, but in people.” A person, in his view, is like a single brick. Put enough bricks together and you can build a house. And that house can cast a shadow.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” With the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade and fifty years of precedent, the divisiveness in this country continues to grow. Maybe, like Kempton Bunton, we need to put our faith in humanity. Not in politics, but in people.