Walk with Me review: When Benedict Cumberbatch met Zen Buddhism

For those uninterested in mindfulness, this meandering portrait is a test of faith

Thich Nhát Hanh: credited with introducing the concept of mindfulness to the West

Film Title: Walk With Me

Director: Max Pugh and Marc James Francis

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Thich Nhát Hanh

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 94 min

Thu, Jan 4, 2018, 05:00

   

There are so many bongs and bells in this new documentary, it could easily be mistaken for The Angelus: The Movie. There’s some thematic overlap, too. For some three years, film-makers Max Pugh and Marc James Francis were, we are told, granted unprecedented access to Plum Village, a remote French community of Zen Buddhists.

Walk with Me, accordingly, initially looks like a hypno-doc, one of those meditative, snail-crawl slices of life in which people do things slowly and quietly, punctuated by bongs. In the village monks and nuns shave their heads, study, update the website and cook.

“There are times I do things out of love for the teacher,” says one of the community. “It helps with the boredom.”

The film could be this year’s Into Great Silence – the unexpected hit 2005 portrait of Carthusian monks – were it not for occasional, tangential shots of nature (tree, ladybird close-up, tree) accompanied by Benedict Cumberbatch reading from the teachings of Thich Nhát Hanh. His script says. “When icy winter comes it is unforgiving to all things young tender and insecure.” The effect is: “Hey, we got Benedict Cumberbatch.”

Thich Nhát Hanh – who was exiled during the Vietnam war – is a potentially fascinating subject, particularly as he lost the power of speech after a stroke in 2014. The man who is credited with introducing the concept of mindfulness to the West and who Martin Luther King proposed as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, unsurprisingly provides Walk with Me with its best moment. At a public event, a young girl asks him: “I had a doggy and the doggy died and I was very sad so I want to know how to be not so sad?” His lovely answer is not diminished by the fact we’ve seen him listed at a New York venue appearing between gigs by Tony Bennett and Weird Al Yankovic.

Sadly, this is not a documentary portrait of Thich Nhát Hanh. The film is far more random than that. We’re well into the run time when the community’s excursions into the outside world allow us some sense of their vocation. Visiting a women’s detention centre in New York (Max Pugh and Marc James Francis are maddeningly coy about times and places), they answer questions from the bemused inmates. Yes, they are celibate; No, they own no worldly goods. Their master is a bit like “Yoda in Star Wars”.

Ironically for a film about the transformation of suffering into the practice of mindfulness, these competing narrative strands make for a somewhat discordant viewing experience. Here’s a turtle on a branch, there’s a Christian street preacher shouting at the community as they publicly meditate, and here’s more Cumberbatch. Walk with Me has several warm moments and should prove unmissable for fans of mindfulness. For the uninterested it’s a test of faith: “Would I listen to Benedict Cumberbatch reading from a phone book?”