Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Duke film review: a secularised ubuntu theology

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for May 2022.

The Duke
Reviewed by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

The Duke is heartwarming drama. Set in Newcastle, Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) writes plays, hoping for BBC fame. At the same time, he also protests TV licenses. For Kempton, television reduces isolation and should be free for pensioners. Shaped by socialist beliefs, Kempton is imprisoned for refusing to pay his TV license. Freed, he is outraged to hear that the British government is spending taxpayer dollars not for pensioner TV license relief but on purchasing a painting for the National Gallery.

The film is based on a true story. In 1961, Newcastle man Kempton Bunton was tried at the Old Bailey for the theft of the “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.” It makes the central character a silent character. Hidden in the spare room wardrobe, the Duke of Wellington becomes a silent observer of Bunton family life.

Character contrasts drive the plot. Dorothy, married to Kempton, is superbly played by Helen Mirren. Her dogged determination is a splendid foil for Kempton’s mercurial wit and political passions. Trying to make their way in the world, brothers Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) and Kenny (Jack Bandeira) embrace different approaches to law-breaking and law-abiding.

Amid the family tensions and building courtroom drama, The Duke offers a poignant meditation on grief. Marion Bunton is another central yet silent character. Killed in a bicycle accident aged eighteen, Dorothy mourns in silence while Jim needs to talk.

These different expressions of grief clash with Dorothy’s anger at “The girl on the bicycle,” the title of one of Kempton’s plays. For Kempton, these plays are a way of talking, and for Dorothy, this is “Making money from her memory.”

This festering sore in their relationship finds resolution as Kempton waits in prison. As the jury deliberates on guilty or not, Helen reaches her own verdict over Marion’s death. “You’re not to blame,” she declares. Her words of forgiveness offer healing from the past, even as the jury applies law and logic to Kempton’s present. Taking time to talk brings needed release.

On the witness stand, Kempton describes what shapes his plays and politics. As light illuminates his head, he professes faith; “A faith in people, not in God.” Washed out to sea as a teenager, Kempton waited. Floating, he trusted a neighbour might see his abandoned clothes and have the courage to come looking. This faith in neighbour saved his life. Since then, professed Kempton, “me-with-you” has shaped his life.

Hence The Duke offers a secularised ubuntu theology. Ubuntu is a distinctly African way of being. People and groups form their identities in relation to one another. Desmond Tutu, a South African bishop and theologian, located these relationships in God. For Tutu, “me-with-you” and “I am because you are” are possible because all persons are made in the image of God. The result was a practical theology of healing, seen most clearly in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu believed that a “me-with-you” talking in the community could meet the needs of the victims, offenders, and nation. Taking time to talk can bring release.

Posted by steve at 04:50 PM | Comments (0)

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