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Most of us demonstrate our concern for less fortunate others with donations, volunteer work, and maybe activism…if we’re truly engaged. But the true story of Kempton Bunton reminds us that there are people who take their obligations yet more seriously.
The British film THE DUKE didn’t seem promising at first. Quirky Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old who can’t seem to stay on a single job for long, feels burdened by the loss of his only daughter who died riding a bicycle he bought for her. To compensate, he feels he needs to step up to do good. The good he decides to do is to provide television entertainment free to the elderly and veterans from WWII who have little cheer in their daily lives. In 1961, Britain required a license from anyone wishing to watch television, and many couldn’t afford it. Bunton crusades on his own to change the law. On the side, he stands up for other causes, as well, mostly dealing with countering ethnic prejudice. He’s often fired and thrown out.
When Kempton (Jim Broadbent) and his son Jack (Fionn Whitehead) see that the British government has proudly paid about $148,000 for a small Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington, they’re incensed. How many TV licenses could that money have provided for how many dark lives! They decide to kidnap the painting from the National Gallery and hold it for ransom so they can correct the situation. The security officials are certain the first-ever heist has been executed by experienced criminals. No one suspects the unsuccessful self-taught playwright—not even his loving spouse (Helen Mirren) who dutifully cleans house for a councilman’s wife (Anna Maxwell) to pay the bills.
The plan seems to be going well when a girlfriend of Kempton’s other son discovers the hidden painting and wants half of the reward for returning it or she’ll go to the police. Charity has become impossible in the face of greed. Kempton travels to the National Gallery to give the painting back. He ends up in prison, of course. Since he cheerfully confesses to the crime, the outcome of his court case seems inevitable. However, Bunton has three things working for him—a clever lawyer; Kempton’s naturally ebullient, charming good humor; and the honesty of his pure heart. The jury finds him guilty only of failing to return the frame. Without divulging the details of the ending, I can say his story proves that people can recognize and appreciate someone who obeys not always the letter of the law but higher values such as love and loyalty—at least they could in 1961. The lopsided morality of ignoring the plights of those who fought for the country in favor of governmental hubris stands naked.
The casually destructive egos of the powerful are more obvious and heinous to us when we see them in a culture outside our own. With brassy publicity, certain Americans can be convinced that minorities, immigrants, and even disabled veterans are suffering for their own choices and deserve what they get. We shouldn’t have to pay for their upkeep—even when we can afford the cost. Other Americans, like good hearted people everywhere, reach out from their faith or their sense of personal respect to do what they can. Goodness doesn’t go out of style even when it has to work in the shade.