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'The Duke' salutes the British legend who stole a Goya from the National Gallery

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Duke" is a film based on a true story that's become legend in Great Britain. The National Gallery spent 140,000 pounds to keep Francisco Goya's "Portrait Of The Duke Of Wellington" in Britain. And when Kempton Bunton seized the news that night in 1961, he is furious.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DUKE")

JIM BROADBENT: (As Kempton Bunton) The taxpayer, your major, he was paid for that painting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Since when have you paid any tax?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Welcome home, Kempton. You know what's going off here, exactly?

BROADBENT: (As Kempton Bunton) Toffs looking after their own, spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked portrait by some Spanish drunk of a duke who voted against universal suffrage.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Against what?

BROADBENT: (As Kempton Bunton) The vote. The duke of Wellington didn't want you to have a say in how this country was run when he was prime minister. Think what they could have done with all that money.

SIMON: Kempton Bunton believes that money would be better spent giving free BBC TV service to war veterans or the elderly. He's eventually charged with stealing the Goya masterpiece to make his point in a true-life story that's been the subject of books, musicals and as seen in "Dr. No" - talk about fame. "The Duke" stars Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren and Matthew Goode. It was the last film directed by Roger Michell before his death last year. And Jim Broadbent, the Oscar-, BAFTA- and Golden Globe-winning actor, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

BROADBENT: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: We should explain in America, the licence fee is an annual fee, a little over 200 U.S. dollars a year, to fund the operations of the esteemed BBC. Senior citizens, I believe, are now exempt. It is still a little chilling to see a scene in which licence police show up at a British household.

BROADBENT: Yes, it did. And it did happen. It does happen. And I think at the time, I think Kempton Bunton was fighting for the poor and the downtrodden. And now the BBC is under threat from the government and trying to - in some way, trying to dismantle the BBC and make it - and privatize it in some way. And I think in this day and age, Kempton Bunton would be fighting to defend the BBC and keep it going rather than undermining their licence fee situation. I think he's - basically, he's anti-establishment.

SIMON: When the film opens, he's a taxi driver, but he's fired for giving price breaks to veterans, isn't he?

BROADBENT: Yeah. Yeah. He's a good character. He's a - and he gets fired from another job for defending an Asian guy from a racist foreman. He's always putting himself on the line and getting in trouble for it.

SIMON: When Kempton Bunton goes on trial for the theft of the Goya, he does just about everything a defendant isn't supposed to do, doesn't he?

BROADBENT: Yeah. He's more than delighted to go on trial in the end. And he's got a platform. He's got a stage, and he's got a captive audience. And he makes the most of it. And when his, I think, grandson or - came to the screening in London, I said, well, would Kempton have liked this, this first night of the premiere of the film about his life in London? And he said, yes, he would have loved it. He would have been in clover. It'd have been exactly everything he had ever wanted.

SIMON: Did you want to try and capture the story, the person? What did you feel your responsibility is in playing an actual person?

BROADBENT: The writers have done a huge amount of wonderful research and come up with a beautiful script, but no one, apart from the family, knew exactly what Kempton was like. And so I basically took it as a piece of fiction, really, but - and played it just straight from the script and didn't have to do too much worrying about whether it was absolutely accurate for Kempton.

SIMON: He - or perhaps I should say you - gets to give a truly beautiful courtroom speech about what the British people can do when they're together.

BROADBENT: Yeah.

SIMON: What did you think when you first read that speech?

BROADBENT: As an actor, I thought, oh, this is a wonderful speech. But - and mainly, it was - it made me laugh out loud, inordinately, really. I mean, and that seldom happens, really, when you read a script, but I actually laugh and think, oh, this is going to be fun. Like, I would love to get into this. And it's - it comes from a very good position. It's got a lot of heart. And it's jokes but with a lot of meaning behind them.

SIMON: This film is drawing such praise and accolades and the inevitable reviews on social media sites, platforms. It must be hard - I - to think of the director, Roger Michell, not being able to be around for that.

BROADBENT: Yeah. It is heartbreaking. And it's - everyone who ever worked with him wanted to work with him again. He was a brilliant director but also a brilliant man. And he was - you know, the loss across the board in films and theater - he did - he directed a lot of theater, as well - is immense. You know, we all miss him, and it's still difficult to understand, really, and come to terms with his death.

SIMON: Without giving the ending away, although, obviously, it happened 60 years ago, and it's a fact of history, I found myself literally tearing up at the verdict when it was delivered in the courtroom. And maybe it's the times in which we're living, but I just - I thought, oh, my God, whatever our endless faults and crimes, in a democracy, the people rule.

BROADBENT: Yeah. I think the way that Richard and Clive, the writers, have presented their story and the - and Kempton's messages is wonderful. And I've heard there's an awful lot of people who've been tearing up, as well. I think it's - it does strike a chord with us at the moment particularly. In the press, we're so much bombarded with selfishness and self-interest that something as generous as Kempton's attitude to the world is refreshing and valuable.

SIMON: Jim Broadbent stars in "The Duke," which is in theaters now. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

BROADBENT: It's a great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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