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In My Country
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by Lucas Stensland

"Big, powerful and surprisingly subtle."
5 stars

John Boorman’s In My Country is a great film about a huge issue that is wise enough to keep its storytelling subtle and honest -- but never simple. Based on Antjie Krog’s novel Country of My Skull, Boorman’s latest concerns South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of the mid-late 1990s, which under the chairmanship of Desmond Tutu investigated human rights violations under Apartheid. In a courtroom setting perpetrators of violent crimes (rape and murder among them) could meet their victims or others who suffered because of their actions, and if the perpetrators were completely honest, showed remorse and could prove that they were following orders, they might be granted amnesty.

Juliette Binoche plays Afrikaner poet Anna Malan, who is reporting on the hearings for South African state radio and NPR in the U.S. Much to her family’s annoyance, Anna is a firm believer in the South African ethic “Ubuntu,” collective unity. She is very optimistic about the TRC and hopes that is will bring the country together. Samuel L. Jackson is Langston Whitfield, a Washington Post journalist, who is cynical about the hearings, believing that it is only a way for guilty white people to absolve themselves of wrongdoings.

Initially Anna and Langston have strife, as they are idealistically at odds. He sees her as naïve, somebody who believes decades of oppression are instantly forgivable; she sees Langston as a derisive American who favors harsh justice over compassion. Anna’s and Langston’s ideals present a dialectic that proves to be simultaneously off mark and dead on. Throughout the film a plethora of viewpoints are voiced, and Boorman goes to great length to make them all seem reasonable, but ultimately he chooses forgiveness, except in extreme cases, as the most efficacious way to progress a troubled society.

With so many superbly and quietly observed scenes, the film will easily afford multiple fruitful viewings. In one such scene Langston, Anna and Dumi, their native South African sound engineer, stand outside after a severe and brutal testimony. These three characters from varying backgrounds, aligned in deep focus, have just shared the same experience and arrived at the identical conclusion while staring off into space: They need a drink, now. Unity at last.

Another marvelously observed scene has Langston arriving at a hearing. After climbing out of his car he is asked by a man for a light for his cigarette. They exchange a few pleasantries and part ways. In the following scene we see that the man with whom Langston just spoke is the perpetrator on trial. And we learn that his confessed actions during Apartheid were beyond brutal. By first presenting the perpetrator as an affable man who would without hesitation strike a casual conversation with a black stranger, Boorman has the audience and Langston concurrently realize the immense complexity of racial issues; in doing so, Boorman also succeeds in humanizing issues that have too often been reduced to pristine good and inhuman evil.

Looking over Boorman's filmography a motif springs forward of people displaced in foreign landscapes, e.g. Hell in the Pacific, Beyond Rangoon, The Emerald Forest and even Deliverence. But more than these, Langston strongly evokes Boorman’s last picture, the smart The Tailor of Panama: an arrogant foreigner arrives and immediately asserts himself within a social order. In The Tailor of Panama hedonistic infiltrator Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) is driven down a Panamanian street where prostitution and decadence bring a smile to his face, and then, in the same shot, his pleasure turns to annoyance when he sees the abject poverty, which he finds tedious. Like Langston, Osnard has a degree of interest in the poor (his sexual, Langston’s humanitarian) but maintains a protective distance from them.

Of course Langston isn’t as horrific as the evil James Bond that is Andy Osnard, but Langston does rent an extravagantly expensive car, emphasized often by Boorman, to travel through areas of extreme poverty to get to various public buildings. Langston’s car seems to have a twofold role: to tout the differences between himself and the poor native blacks and to demonstrate his superiority to the other international journalists.

Binoche and Jackson have spent the past ten years going on and off my shit list. They are obviously both talented performers, but their personas get tiresome and generic: Euro-sophisticated/soul-searching and opinionated/silly-macho, respectively. In this film, every time Binoche seems on the edge of a breakdown, Jackson counters with quiet humility as he realizes how little he actually understands. Blue and Jackie Brown have long served as earsplitting reminders of Binoche’s and Jackson’s talent, and now In My Country can perform that task for both.

Making a film about the TRC is an enormous undertaking and it would have been easy to go the self-important route, but Boorman once again thrives at taking big subjects and making them relevant to human life, a vanishing virtue in modern Hollywood (Ah-hem, Ron Howard). The love that grows between Anna and Langston is not only incredibly believable, but because of Boorman’s mature understanding of the material, it is also ineluctable.

Attempting to overcome conflict with division is erroneous and cowardly; to triumph over conflict with love and understanding is not only a cliché, it is stalwartly evinced here by Boorman to be the best possible route. As a film culture, we are richer for having In My Country.

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originally posted: 01/04/05 16:54:14
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User Comments

10/10/05 Tom Beach 4 stars
1/13/05 Jason Grimshaw Subtle, beautiful and heart wrenching 5 stars
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  11-Mar-2005 (R)
  DVD: 05-Jul-2005



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