Dir. John Boorman. UK-Ireland-South Africa. 2003
While there is no reason to doubt the profound sincerity and laudable intentions behind this adaptation of Antjie Krog's book, John Boorman's portrait of South Africa grappling with its own terrible past during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) - whose purpose was to clear the air by exposing all the crimes of the Apartheid regime - never goes beyond the politically correct but cinematically uninspired. Country Of My Skull appears to be so much in awe of its challenge, that it rarely adventures into paths that are less than safe or predictable.
As for the affair between a black American journalist (Jackson) and a white Afrikaaner radio reporter (Binoche), there to cover the TRC, it sits uncomfortably with the rest of the film, detracting the attention of the audience from the film's main thrust. Neither Samuel Jackson nor Juliette Binoche can do much about it and it is difficult to predict anything more than a respectable theatrical release in the many territories that have already acquired the film. In ancilliary markets the name value of director and stars should give it a second breath. The film played in competition at Berlin.
It's not as if there is anything missing in Ann Peacock's script; on the contrary. There are plenty of detailed hair-raising testimonies of inhuman brutalities, told in great detail with plenty of feeling by actors who have rehearsed their roles dutifully, and lots of witnesses collapsing on the stand, overcome by grief they cannot wipe out of their memories. The balance between the overwhelming number of atrocities perpetrated by whites on blacks compared to the acts of black terror against whites, is accurately maintained. The inevitable comparison of the Apartheid with the Holocaust is in its place and the cynicism of the media is adequately ridiculed.
If most of South Africa's former rulers are shown to be unrepentant and convinced that they had no other choice than their apartheid policies if they wanted to survive, then there is also the minority who keel over under the tremendous guilt of the actions that they have previously ignored.
And, just to make it easier on those cinema patrons who apparently expect a love interest, there is the angry black American (Jackson) who does not believe in white justice, falling for the idealistic Afrikaan (Binoche) who recognises all the sins of her brothers. She believes that revealing them in front of a public commission is the first courageous step towards redemption a new world: indeed, if he can truly embrace her and her faith in the goodness of man; if the little black boy who has seen his parents slaughtered in front of his eyes is capable of hugging the man who killed them after he confesses his sin, then, naturally, we can all look towards a better future.
But for all this to count, the images on the screen have to do more than just catalogue the classic formulas of the genre - they have to move, and in Boorman's film they don't. There are too many cliches piled up one on top of the other, weighed, calculated and arranged accordingly, and that includes such sentimental episodes as the heroine's mother's illicit affair in Paris, long ago (to make her daughter feel better about her own romance'), or the opening and the closing scenes of the American reporter with his estranged family.
While it is easy to applaud the spectacular quality of Seamus Deasy's camera work and his breathtaking aerial shots of African landscapes, the film is not really about that. It is about human beings, which in this case means actors, all of whom seem to be working too hard, which is the last thing they should appear. The one exception is Menzi Ngubane, a South African debutant, whose energy lights up the screen every time he comes on.
At the end of the day, it may seem unfair to reproach Boorman for his admirable intentions. The canvas he attempts too paint is too vast, too complex and too appalling for a fiction film to handle. And being a humanist, he even tries to round it all up with an optimistic conclusion, that either he has trouble believing in or fails to share it with others.
Prod cos: Phoenix Pictures, Film Consortium, Merlin Pictures, UK Film Council, Industrial Development Corp, Studio Eight Productions
Int'l sales: The Works
Prods: Robert Chartoff, Mike Medavoy, John Boorman, Kieran Corrigan, Lyn Hendee
Screenplay: Ann Peacock, based on book by Antje Krog
Cinematography: Seamus Deasy
Ed: Ron Davis
Prod des: Graeme Blem, Fred Du Preez
Costumes: Jo Katsaras
Sound: Brendan Deasy, Coimhe Doyle
Main cast: Samuel L Jackson, Juliette Binoche, Brendan Gleeson, Menzi Ngubane, Nick Boraine, Lionel Newton, Sam Ngakane