You pay for the name.
Stick the word Gucci on a $50 handbag, and it’s suddenly worth $1,400. A few dollars’ worth of fabric transforms into a $250 pair of jeans if you slap a Citizens of Humanity label on it.
Or take Francisco de Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, painted between 1812 and 1814. It’s not a large painting by any means—just a little more than two feet high. It’s not particularly bright or daring or (some would even say) good.
But it is a portrait of one of Britain’s greatest military heroes, painted by one of Spain’s greatest masters. Put those two names together—Wellington and Goya—and you get a painting that, to Britain’s National Portrait Gallery at least, is worth £140,000 in 1961. (That’d be about $4 million today.)
Neighborhood agitator Kempton Bunton certainly doesn’t understand the fuss. After all, Napoleon’s army was defeated by Wellington’s soldiers, not Wellington himself. It’d be nice (Kempton grumbles) if we’d all remember that once in a while. Britain, he believes, should spend its money solving other problems, not purchasing paintings of long-dead generals.
Look at Britain’s television licensing system, for instance. The United Kingdom helps fund the vaunted BBC through those fees. But Kempton believes it’s an unfair tax on the poor and elderly who can’t afford the fee and want—nay, need—to watch a little BBC.
He’ll tell you all about the evils of licensing fees if you ask. Perhaps if you don’t. Indeed, Kempton has opinions on nearly everything, and he never minds sharing them—much to the annoyance of his wife, Dorothy.
“I’m betting ya’,” she says. “Stop all your agitation.”
But with so many agitating issues, how can he stop? For instance, why would the government throw away £140,000 on a middling portrait of Wellington when it could’ve easily used that money to buy TV licenses to its poor and downtrodden citizenry? That’s what Kempton would like to know.
Still, Kempton loves his wife. He knows that perhaps it’s time for him to settle into a normal job, live a normal life and act like a normal sheep. Er, citizen. If Dorothy gives him one last chance to speak truth to power, he promises he’ll be good and quiet for the rest of his days.
But to speak truth to power, he’ll need to go to the country’s power source: London. For two days.
The Duke’s in London too, of course: The painting’s behind the walls of the National Portrait Gallery there, safe and secure.
Be a crying shame if the painting went missing, wouldn’t it? And if it was held for ransom … well, that’d be terrible, too. But the ransom amount sure might pay for a lot of television license fees.
Kempton Bunton is obviously no ordinary art thief. While most criminals would find a way to use the painting to feather their own ill-gotten nests, Kempton is looking out for the little guy.
“All my life I’ve looked out for other people and gotten into trouble for it,” he admits later in court, and we see evidence of that. After he gets a nice, steady job at a bread factory, he loses it in a matter of days for standing up for a fellow worker who’s facing racial discrimination.
He explains that we are, in a way, each other—wholly interdependent upon one another to survive and thrive. He thinks of individuals as bricks: Alone, they’re not worth much. But together, they’re powerful and useful. And when someone’s disenfranchised (as he believes is happening with television license fees), it hurts the whole society.
But for all of Kempton’s noble, off-kilter activism, it’s his relationship with his family that strikes the deepest chord. While Dorothy sighs at and bickers with her husband, his devotion to her is unquestioned. Kempton loves his sons, too, and he makes a very brave (and questionable) move to protect his youngest from a poor decision.
One more thing: When it appears that Kempton just might get caught, the man does what (given the circumstances) seems at least a semi-honorable thing: He takes the painting, marches into the National Portrait Gallery and gives it back, knowing full well that it’ll likely mean significant jail time.
Kempton isn’t particularly religious. He says that when he was in a bind as a teen—pulled out by a riptide to what could’ve been his doom—he had faith that he’d be saved. Not faith in God, but faith in people.
That said, he makes plenty of religious references. Some seem to be sincere. When he asks his barrister what a Latin phrase inscribed above the bench means, he’s told it reads, “Lord direct us.” “‘Lord help us,’ more like it,” he says.
Others are more flippant. The thief says that “not even God was standing by” the painting when it was nicked. And when Kempton tries to figure out what to do with the stolen painting, he tells son Jackie that they could really use Christ right now.
“How come?” Jackie asks.
“Carpenter,” Kempton says. “Someone who knows how to put a false back on that wardrobe.”
Kempton also fashions himself as a playwright, and he’s sent several off to the BBC for consideration. His latest ponders what “if Jesus had been born a woman.” He calls it The Adventures of Susan Christ. (“Not my cup of tea, then,” a woman tells him once she learns the title.) We hear references to punching the Pope.
The Bunton’s eldest son, Kenny, comes back to stay for a few days, hoping that his girlfriend, Pammy, can stay with him. Dorothy is particularly set against it, especially that she’s not even officially divorced and doesn’t want her son “living in sin” under their roof. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s in the family way,” Dorothy sniffs. Kempton agrees, but the parents apparently relent: Later, we see Kenny and Pammy have sex while standing (fully clothed) in the spare bedroom. Pammy smokes a cigarette casually, leaning against a big wardrobe, while Kenny sweats and moans and moves. We later see Kenny with his pants unbuttoned.
Jackie and his girlfriend kiss and make out. A policeman leers at a woman’s rear, mentioning it to a coworker. When the other officer reminds the first that he’s married, the leering cop says, “I can look at the menu as long as I dine at home.” We see one or two uncovered breasts in pictures. Kempton tells the court that he was not named for the Kempton Park Racecourse, but he was likely conceived there.
Dorothy and Kempton’s daughter was apparently killed when her bicycle crashed. We don’t see the accident, but the 18-year-old’s death is a lingering wound for both parents—and a wound in their relationship. People talk about the death penalty (and argue whether people are “hanged” or “hung”). We hear that Kempton’s dad returned from World War I in a wheelchair after a tank ran over his legs.
Seven f-words, four s-words and a Jackson Pollack canvas of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–tard,” “h—,” “p-ss” and the British vulgarities “bloody and “b–locks.” God’s name is misused three times, while Jesus’ name is abused five times. We hear some crude terms for various body parts (and people compared to said body parts).
Kempton smokes a pipe, and several characters smoke cigarettes. Members of the Bunton family go to a pub to drink beer and other beverages. Kenny and Jackie drink beer elsewhere. Kempton jokes with his solicitors about giving him a gin and tonic. In a clip from James Bond’s Dr. No, the titular villain serves James his standard vodka martini.
The movie revolves around a crime, obviously—the theft of a very valuable painting, which is treated as something of a lark. (Indeed, Kempton’s solicitor argues that Kempton wasn’t stealing at all, but rather borrowing the painting for a greater good.)
Both of Kempton’s sons have apparently some experience on the other side of the law, as well. Kenny’s back in town because he’s in trouble elsewhere. He invites little brother Jackie to drive a getaway car for another job, but Jackie turns him down, saying it’s not right. Kenny chides him, given that Jackie’s done that sort of thing before.
A crime of this sort naturally involves quite a bit of lying and hiding of the truth, too—but this film includes more lying than most of this ilk. Kempton’s the biggest liar, it would seem. Not only does he lie regarding the painting—keeping the truth from Dorothy as long as he can—but he lies in other ways. When he loses his job, for instance, he pretends he still has one for a couple of days (going so far as to buy a meat pie of the sort that Dorothy asked him to bring home from work). He seems to lie about where he’s going and what he’s doing as well. Meanwhile, Dorothy knows that Kempton’s being rather secretive, so she snoops through all of her husband’s personal belongings.
One of Kempton’s employers treats his minority employees with disrespect. [Spoiler Warning] Pammy, Kenny’s girlfriend, discovers the portrait of the Duke and tries to blackmail Kempton with the information.
As the British police try to find who stole their valuable painting, a criminal profile describes the likely culprit as a “Don Quixote,” someone who tilts at the windmills of injustice—even if the tilt itself is hopeless and those injustices are themselves a bit questionable.
The description nails Kempton. He’d compare himself more to Robin Hood than the deranged Don Quixote, of course, but he realizes his crusades come with a whiff of the quixotic. His fight against those television licensing fees is a great example. Rather than pay the fee (which, again, is levied on all British television sets, ostensibly to pay for the otherwise free BBC), Kempton ripped out the part of his TV that received the BBC. Britain’s television police were unmoved: They sent him to jail for 13 days for noncompliance. But it was hard time Kempton was willing to do for his principles.
Principles, schminciples, says Dorothy. She just wants a nice, normal family. In fact, as Kempton was ripping out the innards of his telly, Dorothy was paying the licensing fee. The result? A licensed TV incapable of broadcasting the very thing being licensed.
The Duke gives us something of a cinematic paradox as well.
The film, starring Oscar winners Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, is gentle and funny and ever-so British. It might’ve felt like a grand fit on 1960s BBC itself—if not for all the needless profanity and an unnecessarily tawdry sex scene. The film offers a lot of nice messages about family and doing the right thing—using the backdrop of one of Britain’s most famous heists.
Oh, yes. The Duke is indeed based on a true story. And indeed, many believed Kempton was more like Robin Hood or Don Quixote than a hardboiled crook. Fair enough. But perhaps we shouldn’t lose sight that wrongs, not rights, are what the story’s built on. And the film—as entertaining as it can be—goes wrong in some ways itself.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.