Should a film get a critical pass because it is about a highly important social topic? In a recent review I wrote on HOTEL RWANDA, I emphatically said “yes.” Well, that little personal rule is about to meet its enemy, stinging exception. Director John Boorman’s (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, TAILOR OF PANAMA) heart is in the right place, setting his latest film, IN MY COUNTRY, amidst South Africa’s real-life Truth & Reconciliation hearings; an attempt by that country’s government to right the wrongs of apartheid by trying those who doled out the persecution. Unfortunately, however, it’s his filmmaking mind that leaves the film’s events feeling thin and undercooked.
Based on the novel COUNTRY OF MY SKULL by Antjie Krog, IN MY COUNTRY stars French ingénue Juliette Binoche as Anna, a native white South African poet, who is covering the hearings for national radio. Outraged and shocked by the testimony she hears, Anna is nonetheless treated as one of “them” by Washington Post reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The debate about whether blame for such atrocities lies with the most powerful few, the soldiers they charge with orders or the populace who may or may not know of the goings-on is the most glowing and interesting theme in the film. Similar deliberation constructs the crux of Stanley Kramer’s classic, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG, with Nazism in place of apartheid. But while it is the focus of the latter film, it is only a few of the pixels that comprise the blurry total image of IN MY COUNTRY.
As Anna and Langston get past the associations their skin pigments bring to the fray and find the individuals underneath, they have an affair. But a quick glimpse of a kiss and a shorter moment of edited passion betrays a kid-glove treatment to what may have been a compelling storyline. What you’ve already read might have been enough to effectively fill 104 minutes, but IN MY COUNTRY grows grossly overweight on a myriad of sub-plots. For example, the effect of Anna’s affair on her husband and family; Anna’s mother admitting to a past affair with an African-American; oddly placed intermittent pace-killing inserts of Whitfield interviewing De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), a former ringleader of barbarity; a needless sub-plot regarding the involvement of Anna and Langston’s guide, another involving a caretaker from Anna’s youth; Whitfield’s anger over the American press’s disregard for the proceedings; and, most lukewarm and needless, the glossed over suicide and funeral of Anna’s brother. While full treatment of these pieces – and others, not named - would have resulted in a three-hour epic long puzzle, inclusion of some would have sufficed here. Admittedly, I did not read the book, but it is quite plain to see that the filmmakers wanted to stuff every last bit of it and then some into its cinematic adaptation.
It is indeed a fallacy to believe that any film that tackles weighty social issues should be perceived as “important” (JAKOB THE LIAR, anyone?) Sometimes, as in the case of IN MY COUNTRY, the movie gets in the way and serves itself instead of the substantial cause that originally inspired it.