An eccentric Brit pinches a priceless painting in this cozy tea-time drama
Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Jim Broadbent (Kempton Bunton), Helen Mirren (Dorothy Bunton), Fionn Whitehead (Jackie Bunton), Matthew Goode (Jeremy Hutchinson), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Gowling), Aimée Kelly (Iree), Joshua McGuire (Eric Crowther), Charlotte Spencer (Pammy), John Heffernan (Nedie Cussen QC), Charles Edwards (Sir Joseph Simpson), Sian Clifford (Dr Unsworth)
In 1961, a 60-year old working-class Geordie and social campaigner (in the “tilting at windmills” sense) Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) made headlines. He went on trial, accused of stealing Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. Bunton was outraged that the British Government had spent £140k (about £3.3 million today) on preserving the painting for the public. Bunton believed the money would have been better spent paying for TV licences for veterans. When Bunton returned the painting, his trial became a media sensation.
Michell’s film (his final one, as he passed away before its Covid-delayed release) is an inoffensive, gentle, Sunday-afternoon cuddle fest, that never quite decides what it really wants to be. The tone frequently bubbles with a faint “caper”-like atmosphere, with its jazzy 60s score, split screen shooting and pops at the foolishness of the establishment, who never consider the painting could have been nabbed by a British eccentric from oop North (two sexist police officers rubbish a female handwriting expert who correctly identifies Bunton’s background). But it’s a slow, rather unfocused character study that has a melancholic grief at its heart. These elements never really fuse together.
Bunton is the quintessential plucky-British eccentric, railing against the system, that this country loves to love. He has a fixation on the injustice of the BBC licence fee (he even “fixes” his TV by removing the part of the cathode that receives the BBC signal, so that he can legitimately refuse to pay the licence), he’s a convinced class warrior. He’s fired as a taxi driver for (a) giving veterans and others free rides and (b) banging on endlessly about his political fixations to his passengers (even one of his charity rides begs him to shut up). He’s fired from a bakery for standing up for a Pakistani fellow worker in the face of racial discrimination. He sits in the rain vainly trying to get people to sign his anti-licence fee petition.
But he’s got no real idea how to use the painting to achieve his aims. While this lack of a plan fits his character, it does mean the central section of the film tends to drift, mostly taking some cheap shots at the British authorities‘ self-satisfied complacency, while Bunton tucks the painting in a cupboard and does nothing with it other than write the odd letter to the press, trying to leverage its return for support for his causes
The film has an odd, inverted snobbery about art throughout. It sees paintings as solely a preserve of the rich. A female journalist early in the film (who we are clearly meant to sympathise with) questions the money spent because of its small size (as if surface area was the best judge of Artistic value!) – and the director of the National Gallery is only allowed a vague defence of its quality in return (which we are clearly meant to sneer at). Bunton calls the painting “not very good” and disparages Goya as a “drunk Spaniard” (which feels rather like calling Turner a “blind idiot”), with the film offering no counter view. It never mentions that the picture was (a) placed in the National Gallery for all to see for free; or (b) that the government actually only put up £40k with the rest donated by a millionaire.
Instead, the film takes an odd angle that painting is the “wrong sort of art” to be spending so much money on – the writers and directors never mention that in the same year the Government spent £1 million on the National Theatre (25 times what they spent on the Goya). I’m pretty sure Bunton would have hated that as much, if not more (especially since no one could see a National Theatre show for free, unlike the Goya) but you can’t expect writers Richard Bean and Chris Coleman and director Michell to bite the theatre teat that fed them. The film ends with an odd caption stating the licence fee was made free for over-75s forty years later – but doesn’t explain that it was done in a way designed to hobble an institution loathed by the Conservative Government (and I doubt Bunton would have supported the action either!).
On top of this, there is a way more interesting film to be made here about grief. The loss of their daughter, aged 18, to a cycling accident hangs over everything the Buntons do. It’s the source of unspoken tension between Kempton and Dorothy. He visits the grave frequently and can’t understand why she won’t, and they can hardly bring themselves to talk about the loss or display her picture. While centring this would make for a more melancholic film, it feels like its heart.
But that would be a less crowd-pleasing film, and that’s what this film is trying to be. The final act is dedicated to the courtroom, and its mostly about watching Kenton and his lawyer (a lovely turn from Matthew Goode) running rings around the system. Of course every character in the film puts their differences aside to cheer on Bunton on the stand. It’s when the film gets a bit of the fizz back from the opening. Not enough for it to be anything more than passable entertainment – but it helps.
The lead performances are of course excellent, much better than the film deserves. Broadbent is absolutely perfect casting, playing this dedicated social-warrior to charming perfection. Mirren gives a performance way better than the thinly-written exasperated wife deserves. But they’re the main selling points of an otherwise fairly average movie. The film telescopes the events of four years into six months, but only rarely gives itself the sort of energy and fun it needs to be anything more than a something you can let pass before your eyes on a Bank Holiday.