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Very worthy and very VERY DULL
on 4 January 2009
I wish I could say that this movie was a brave and challenging window onto an issue which everyone should know about. While everyone should indeed know of the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the idea that confession brings absolution not punishment, with all the pain which that can entail, is a worthy study for a film, this film ain't it. Good intentions do not good movies make.
First there's the problem of Hilary Swank. Like most American stars brought into a movie to boost budgets and distribution, she sticks out like a sore thumb. The character, an ex-pat lawyer returning to her homeland to represent someone involved in a Truth and Reconciliation hearing, is not quite marginal, but almost. Her efforts at a South African accent are intermittent, to put it politely, and her lacklustre performance seems to scream "What am I doing here?" - a question echoed by the audience.
There's another acting problem in the presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Alex Mpondo, an ANC politician opposing an amnesty for a policeman who killed his best friend and tortured him. In the process of his opposition he is revealed to have had feet of clay. Now this is territory for moral anguish, but Ejiofor really can't suggest anything more than mild indigestion; plus you have to wonder why a Nigerian actor is standing in for a South African.
Then there's the script, by TV veteran Troy Kennedy Martin. Oh, those words! They go on and on and on. You keep wanting to scream, don't tell me, show me. One of the problems is the wordy format of the Courtroom Drama, which fits ill with the grey ambiguities which result from the avoidance of the punishment so ardently desired by so many victims of Apartheid. And when it's not being wordy and cliched with that particular genre, it's being deeply patronising to its other long-suffering black characters, whose nobility stifles their individuality in 1960s Sidney Poitier style.
Most crucially the script fluffs the central issue, which is of the flawed character of Mpondo. Did he betray his friend or didn't he? All sorts of bets are hedged here, but the brave thing for the movie to say would have been that anyone is capable of cracking under torture, and that doesn't make them any less of a worthwhile person.
None of the flaws are mitigated by the slack direction of Tom Hooper, never averse to lingering over a sunset when the interminable drama demands he get a move on.
This is a movie with its heart in the right place - but the heart needs a pacemaker.