Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Samuel L. Jackson, Juliette Binoche, Brendan Gleeson, Menzi 'Ngubs' Ngubane, Sam Ngakane, Aletta Bezuidenhout, Lionel Newton, Langley Kirkwood
Written by: Ann Peacock, based on the book "Country of My Skull" by Antjie Krog
Directed by: John Boorman
MPAA Rating: R for language, including descriptions of atrocities, and for a scene of violence
Running Time: 104
Date: 02/07/2004
IMDB

In My Country (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Out of Africa

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A true international filmmaker, John Boorman can comfortably plunk himself down in any place at any time, from the 1960s San Francisco cop thriller Point Blank to the 2001 The Tailor of Panama. Even his biggest failures have something to recommend them, notably the kooky visuals in Zardoz (1973) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).

But in a career spanning 40 years and over a dozen features, Boorman's latest film hits with a curious thud. It has the awkward mangling of a well-intentioned but inept amateur.

In My Country takes place in 1996 South Africa, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. The Commission's intent was to hear those who had committed atrocities, and -- if they admitted that they had acted under orders -- to forgive them.

Washington Post reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) can't understand this thinking; he believes that the guilty should be punished. Meanwhile, Afrikaans poet Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) has been sent to cover the hearings in her own unique voice, and she understands the beauty of forgiveness. Anna and Langston begin by arguing with one another, but soon become fast friends.

As their relationship builds, the movie becomes less and less comfortable balancing high-minded sociopolitical dialogue and forced character developments. For example, Langston and Anna, who are both married to other people, eventually sleep together, but only because the script says so, not because they have an irresistible attraction.

Boorman also gets minor details wrong, from the flow of the hearings (which include convenient pauses so that the heroes can talk) to an interview that Langston conducts with one of the ringleaders of Apartheid, Col. De Jager (Brendan Gleeson). Boorman cuts to that interview again and again, taking place outside the rest of the action, but he fails to make clear when it takes place during the story's timeline. Jarring and confusing, it conflicts with other events.

Still, the film has its heart in the right place and, like Hotel Rwanda, tells shocking stories to which the world might not ordinarily have paid attention. Among the awkward screenwriting and leaps in character logic come true moments of sheer horror as the victims tell their tales, most of them true. It's too bad that this good storytelling and the film's bad storytelling couldn't have got along better.

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