In 1961 Newcastle 60 year old fervent socialist and sometime taxi driver Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is campaigning for free tv licences of OAPs. He even goes to jail for his beliefs. Then to his fury he sees on the tv news – presumably ITN as he has removed the BBC from his telly as part of his protest – the home secretary and the director of the National Gallery proudly announcing that they have saved Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington for the nation at a cost of £140,000. Public money which could have bought tv licenses for thousands of OAPs being spent on “some half-baked portrait by a Spanish drunk”, as Bunton sees it.
And so begins the mystery, which baffled the police and made headlines in the class ridden early sixties – who stole the Duke of Wellington?
Michell recreates the period with loving accuracy, giving the film an appropriately old fashioned look and feel, from the wallpaper in the Bunton family’s living room to the social attitudes of the time.
The versatile Broadbent is predictably perfect as Bunton, fervent campaigner for his fellow man and also a wannabe playwright whose plays were never performed. Helen Mirren is his dowdy wife, forever cleaning up the physical and other messes made by husband and two sons. Emotionally repressed over the death years earlier of their daughter and embarrassed by her husband’s impassioned rants she embodies perfectly the attitudes of certain working class women of the time. Supporting roles, also well in period, include Fionn Whitehead as Bunton’s supportive son Jackie.
The climactic sequence where Bunton, who has finally put the police out of their misery and confessed to the theft, gets an opportunity with the support of his barrister (Matthew Goode) to hold forth to the world on his philosophy, is an absolute cracker of a trial scene. And the film’s final revelation is unexpected.
Somewhat late in the day Bunton’s dream of free tv licences at least for the over 75s did eventually come to pass in November 2000, nearly forty years later. He would have been gutted however to learn that the privilege was withdrawn for most of them in July two years ago.