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Blooming romance

Two inmates find love in a harsh South African prison in 'Proteus,' which serves as a parable about the plight of gays throughout history.

August 27, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Proteus" represents an ambitious attempt on the part of Canadian director John Greyson and writer Jack Lewis, a Cape Town video activist, to discover as much meaning as possible in their imagining of an actual story of two prisoners in South Africa, one black, the other white, who were lovers for 17 years, between 1718 and 1735. They ended up on Robben Island, the same place Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. "Proteus" is involving and affecting even if it is not completely coherent or fully realized.

The film's title refers to the adaptability and eventual flowering, like the protea, of Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brown), a member of Cape Town's Kholi tribe, whom the Dutch are eradicating. Having had English and Dutch masters, Claas has fashioned himself as a classic "clever servant" as a survival tactic. When the Dutch falsely accuse Claas of cattle rustling, for which the penalty is death, Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth), an English botanist, speaks out on his behalf. Even so, Claas is convicted of insolence and assault upon an officer. Eventually, Claas and Rijkhaart Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands), a Dutch sailor convicted of sodomy, are assigned by the prison's governor to work for Niven, who is naming and cultivating South African flora for the European market.

From the start, Niven, who is secretly gay, is attracted to Claas and grants him special privileges but lacks the nerve to go any further. In the meantime, Claas pursues Rijkhaart.

Though Greyson and Lewis have condensed the couple's 17 years into a decade, they do convey how lust can flower into a deep and abiding love. Although homosexuality is punishable by death under Dutch law, the prison's administrators largely look the other way. But as has been the case throughout history, governments come down hard on gays when it serves their interests; Claas and Rijkhaart are at all times vulnerable.

The ever-timely political, social, religious and international implications of Claas and Rijkhaart's relationship will hardly be lost on sophisticated audiences, straight or gay. Yet Greyson and Lewis introduce anachronism, an always tricky but occasionally effective device, as a way of driving home what is already painfully self-evident. For example, a prisoner is flogged by a guard in a modern military uniform as a heavy-handed reminder that black South Africans suffered terribly until apartheid came to end only in 1994. This constant sprinkling of anachronistic dress and objects throughout the film is merely a distraction that serves to remind the audience that it is looking at a movie. Much more effective is the filmmakers' concern for the mythology of Claas' people and the use of South Africa's exquisite national flower, the king protea, as a symbol of the lovers' developing relationship.

The filmmakers ultimately connect the fate of the lovers with a crackdown on gays in Amsterdam that resulted in the garroting of 70 men condemned for sodomy, but the incident and its implications could have been further developed. However, the gay sensibility of "Proteus" and the arc of Claas and Rijkhaart's relationship are powerful, as is much of the film's sepia-hued imagery. The distinctive personalities of the lovers, one more clever, the other more romantic, are well-drawn. Brown, Sandilands and Smyth are as persuasive as they are attractive. The narrative thread and some subsidiary relationships are at times hard to track, but what "Proteus" reveals about the plight of gays throughout history is crystal clear.




MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Strong sexuality, some prison brutality, adult themes

Rouxnet Brown...Claas Blank

Neil Sandilands...Rijkhaart Jacobsz

Shaun Smyth...Virgil Niven

Kristen Thomson...Kate, Virgil's cousin and

the governor's wife

Deon Lotz...Governor

A Strand Releasing presentation of a Canadian-South African co-production: A Big World Cinema/Pluck co-production in association with Idol Pictures. Director John Greyson. Producers Steven Markovitz, Anita Lee & Platon Trakoshis. Screenplay Jack Lewis and Greyson; from a story by Lewis. Cinematographer Giulio Biccari. Editor Roslyn Kalloo. Music Don Pyle & Andrew Zealley. Costumes Diana Cilliers. Production designer Tom Hannam. In English, Afrikaans and Nama, with English subtitles.

Exclusively at the Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and the Laemmle's One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; opens Sept. 3 at the Edwards University 6, Campus Drive and Stanford, opposite UC Irvine, (800) FANDANGO 143#.

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