Dir: TomHooper. UK-S Africa. 2004. 100mins.

While itssubject matter is almost identical to John Boorman's Country Of My Skull,the feature debut from UK TV director Tom Hooper proves far superior to thebigger budgeted Berlin competition entry, delivering a tighter and better-actedthriller drama.

Itproves neither controversial nor edgy, but rather plays everything by the book.However, this may limit its theatrical potential, although sales have beensecured to SvenskFilmIndustri for Scandinavia and DNC SpA for Italy among others.

South Africa'sTruth And Reconciliation Commission (TRAC) hearings, which granted an amnestyto those who admitted responsibilityfor apartheid atrocities, proves a powerful setting for a thriller drama.

In 2000, the TRACtravels across South Africa , conducting hearings and reopening old wounds inan attempt to heal them. Human-rights lawyer Sarah Barcant (Swank) returns fromNew York to her childhood village in South Africa to work on the case of AlexMpondo (Ejiofor), now an African National Congress Member of Parliament,who in 1986 was imprisoned and torturedfor 31 days by local policeman Henricks (Bartlett).

It soontranspires that there is much more at stake than the almost fatal beating:Alex's agenda is really centered on the disappearance of his friend, who wasimprisoned at the same time he was.

During thehearing former police chief Piet Muller (Roberts) watches Henricks closely, warning him not to reveal the past.Slowly but surely the film unravels recent history, and while some of therevelations hardly surprise, the telling of events is never less than gripping.

Experiencedwriter Troy Kennedy-Martin (The ItalianJob) turns out a strong script based on the novel by Gillian Slovo, whichultimately proves tighter and much less contrived than Country Of My Skull.

Even the castingof lesser-known stars Swank and Ejiofor (as opposed to Country's Juliete Binoche and Samuel L Jackson) works to itsadvantage.

Political andethical questions brought to the surface through the hearings are neveroverdone, and Hooper avoids the sentimental traps which are always dangerouslyclose to the surface and which caught out Boorman's film.

The film isbeautifully shot by Larry Smith (Fear X), who also collaborated with thedirector on much of his previous TV work, including Prime Suspect 6 and ColdFeet. Acting is excellent all around, and it says much for the director andwriter, as well as lead Jamie Bartlett, that audiences can accept that even thelikes of Henricks need to be forgiven in order to get on their lives.

Prod cos: BBC Films, Distant Horizon, VideovisionEntertainment, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa
Int'l sales:
GreenRoom Picture
Ruth Caleb,David M. Thompson, Anant Singh, Helena Spring
Scr: Troy Kennedy-Martin, based on the novel byGillian Slovo
Larry Smith
Avril Beukes
Prod des:
Mark Wilby
Rob Lane
Main cast:
HilarySwank, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jamie Bartlett, Ian Roberts, Marius Weyers