Dir: Bille August. France/Germany/Belgium/Italy/South Africa 2007. 117 mins
Denmark's double Palme d'Or laureate Bille August takes on one of modern historical cinema's holy grails, after a fashion: in its indirect way, GoodbyeBafana is nearly the Nelson Mandela story. But where he once scored with The Best Intentions, August's noble purpose runs aground with this solemn, dramatically inert evocation of Mandela's final prison years, from the point of view of a white prison guard. Goodbye Bafana is in a familiar mould - the story of South African struggle from the perspective of a white character whose consciousness is transformed - but it lacks the drama of Cry Freedom or the emotional subtlety of A World Apart.
Joseph Fiennes's sympathetic lead is ts strongest card, and the film's educational intent should ensure a moderate commercial appeal, but its strongest prospects are likely to be in television and DVD rather than theatrical, while festival potential should be respectable, given the subject matter.
Based on the memoirs of prison warder James Gregory (Fiennes), the film follows Gregory's career from 1968, when he takes up duties at notorious detention centre Robben Island, whose most celebrated inmate is ANC militant Mandela (Haysbert).
With bitter irony, James and his ambitious wife Gloria (Kruger) see the posting as 'Paradise Island', while for the prisoners it is nothing less
than hell, thanks to men like Gregory.
Gregory's familiarity with the Xhosa language lands him a posting in the Censorship section, to glean any information that might come from Mandela.
But this confirmed racist finds his conscience stirred when he suspects that information he supplies is the direct cause of Mandela's son's death. Despite a turbulent career, Gregory continues to be close to Mandela - the terms of the relationship significantly changing - right up to the political leader's release in 1990.
An oppressor's-eye-view of apartheid, Goodbye Bafana has all the material for a provocative film. While the story is told entirely from Gregory's angle, its protagonist is neither an active rebel nor especially noble: though his racist attitudes alter significantly through the film, Gregory continues to work as Mandela's jailer.
There are some rather awkward scenes of Gregory struggling to
amend his beliefs - notably, a surreptitious library visit to read the ANC
Freedom Charter - but his susceptibility to Mandela's cause is clumsily set up by flashbacks to Gregory's rural childhood, when his best friend was a blackboy ('bafana' means 'boy' in Xhosa).
The recreation of apartheid-era South Africa is generally evocative, notably thanks to Tom Hannam's production design. But the script, by Greg Latter and August, is often maladroit - not just in those scenes where Gregory and Mandela debate ANC ideology, but particularly in the heavy-handed episodes of racist invective.
These may represent a plausible depiction of apartheid attitudes,
but they are dramatically clumsy, as if the film felt obliged to spell out thatperiod's horrors for a younger audience who might not remember apartheid.
Fiennes scores by making his working-stiff hero sympathetic rather than heroic, although he never quite pulls off a convincing transition between the brutish racist of the start and the thinking man proud to walk at Mandela's side.
And although she plays Gloria as an essentially superficial woman, Kruger isn't able to make her much more than a hanger for some quaint 60s fashions.
The real disappointment, however, is Haysbert's Mandela: the actor seems so respectful of this iconic role that he doesn't dare go too close to the part: there's a hint of impersonation, with odd, robotic diction, but this Mandela comes acrossas a lofty waxwork radiating Zen-like detachment, and the real man's charisma barely ignites on screen.
In its favour, the film's general tone, dramatically and visually, is muted rather than being given the falsely gratifying emotional surge that a bigger production might have gone for: Goodbye Bafana is thoughtful, but a missed opportunity.
X Filme Creative Pool
Marmont Film Production
Jean-Luc Van Damme
Jimmy de Brabant