Portrait of an artist
Total Film|February 2022
The Duke pairs Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren in a terrific stranger-than-fiction crime caper that’s since accrued added poignancy. Total Film looks for a stolen Goya painting and hidden truths on set of what turned out to be director Roger Michell’s final film…
JAMIE GRAHAM

February, 2020, West London Film Studios. Total Film is hovering outside a bedroom as Helen Mirren, in 1960s garb, carefully rifles through a desk until she happens upon a photograph of a young woman. It stops her in her tracks, overcome by emotion. Then, Mirren shifts her attention to a cupboard, this time uncovering a manuscript entitled The Girl On The Bicycle. Again the emotion swells up, but is interrupted by Fionn Whitehead appearing at the bedroom door.

“Cut!” calls the First AD, and producer Nicky Bentham uses the reset time to explain just what is going on. “Helen is playing Dorothy Bunton and that room is the writing space of Kempton, her husband, played by Jim Broadbent,” she says. “She’s having a fish around as she has a sneaking suspicion that he might be up to no good. And she finds, in the drawer, a beautiful portrait of their daughter, who’s died. She’s just never been able to speak about the grief of losing a child, whereas he’s wanted to, and he’s poured a lot of that into his writing.” Bentham smiles. “So she sees the picture, and then she goes to have a look in the cupboard to see what else he might be hiding. And we [the audience] know there’s a Goya painting in the cupboard, in a back panel. But she doesn’t find the painting at this point. She sees a stack of his manuscripts, and goes to start reading one when she gets interrupted by Jackie, her son.” Bentham laughs. “So there’s a lot going on in this scene!”

Indeed there is. And there’s a lot going on in the film in general, a delightful comedy-drama entitled The Duke that falls, tonally, somewhere between the Ealing comedies of 1947-57 and the gritty British New Wave dramas that came immediately after. It is based, remarkably, on a true story from 1961 that was enough of a cultural happening to be referenced in Dr. No a year later (Bond spies Francisco Goya’s The Duke Of Wellington stashed in Dr. No’s lair), but has since faded from the public consciousness.

It all began when the aforementioned painting was stolen from the National Gallery, causing uproar, only for Newcastle taxi driver Kempton Bunton to stroll into a police station clutching the missing canvas. Bunton was a soapbox revolutionary who also dreamed of being a playwright, and he’d nabbed the picture because it had been purchased with £140,000 of public money – cash he felt would have been better spent on providing TV licences for OAPs so they needn’t feel so lonely.

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