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Fine acting but a muddle of a tale in this 'Country'

Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson star in John Boorman's grueling film about a post-apartheid tribunal in South Africa.

March 11, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"In My Country" is the kind of serious, intelligent probing of the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by the government in 1996 to investigate human rights abuses under apartheid, that one would expect from a director of the caliber of John Boorman. He has confronted the horrors straight on but has been stymied by a ponderous script adapted by Ann Peacock from the book "Country of My Skull" by Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog.

Boorman's stars Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson are valiant -- even impressive -- but they cannot rescue this grueling film or its mechanical plot. "In My Country" is a thoughtful, wholly worthy endeavor of considerable craftsmanship and skill, which is also very tough going, not merely because of the bleakness of its subject but also because of the way in which its story is told.

Set nearly a decade ago, "In My Country" finds Binoche's Anna -- an Afrikaner poet and a daughter of landed gentry who is preparing to cover the commission hearings for South African state radio and NPR -- clashing almost immediately with the Washington Post's Langston Whitfield (Jackson). Idealistic and impassioned, Anna embraces wholeheartedly the commission's decision to proceed in accordance with the African principle of ubuntu, which seeks to establish harmony among all people by absolving transgressions rather than seeking retribution for them.

Those guilty of human rights abuses, mainly white members of the military or law enforcement, are confronted in court by their victims or the relatives of victims. The accused can then seek amnesty if they can demonstrate that they were following orders when they resorted to abuse and torture. As a black American who says he has been made to feel unwanted every day of his life, Langston sees the commission as merely allowing perpetrators to escape punishment. He also asks, "How can there be any reconciliation when whites control 90% of the country's wealth?"

Anna and Langston are strong people prepared to wear each other down, and he starts to mellow in the face of Anna's steadfast sincerity of purpose, just as she learns from him that as an Afrikaner there's no way she can absolve herself from responsibility for apartheid and its long-standing systematic injustice and cruelty. As part of his coverage, Langston tracks down Col. De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), the most notorious South African police torturer, and persuades him to open up in order to bring down many others involved. Apart from Anna and Langston, other characters tend to be sketchy.

"In My Country" is unfortunately more didactic than dramatic, and although surprises emerge right up to the end, there's precious little suspense, mystery or uncertainty.

The film's narrative stance may be too dead-on, for it creates the feeling that it might have been more powerful had it had a more oblique, revelatory approach.

Yet such a feeling points to the larger issue that the entire film has been told too much from the outside. Even though their understanding evolves, Anna and Langston are from the start sophisticated, educated, principled individuals whose responses to the working of the commission -- and to each other -- are predictable.

It would seem that "In My Country," to get to the dark heart of the matter, should have been about a torturer and his victim, rather than a pair of reporters covering an after-the-fact investigation.


'In My Country'

MPAA rating: R for language, including descriptions of atrocities, and for a scene of violence.

Times guidelines: Too intense for children

Samuel L. Jackson...Langston Whitfield

Juliette Binoche...Anna Malan

Brendan Gleeson...Col. De Jager

Menzi (Ngubs) Ngubane ...Dumi Mkhalipi

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Phoenix Pictures, the Film Consortium and Merlin Films presentation. Director John Boorman. Producers Robert Chartoff, Mike Medavoy, John Boorman, Kieran Corrigan, Lynn Hendee. South African producer David Wicht. Executive producers Chris Auty, Neil Peplow, Mfundi Vundla, Duncan Reid, Sam Bhembe, Jamie Brown. Screenplay Ann Peacock; based on the book by Antjie Krog. Cinematographer Seamus Deasy. Editor Ron Davis. Music supervisor Philip King. Costumes Jo Katsaras. Art director Emelia Roux-Weavind. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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