Welcome to part 4 of my mini-series on South African films! Up for review this week is Red Dust, a not-so-well-known British film directed by Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech and Elizabeth I fame. Don’t get me wrong–I did enjoy those two movies. But Hooper was also responsible for the absolute catastrophe that was 2012’s Les Misérables. I am completely serious when I say that it is one of the worst films I have ever seen, which is a shame, because as Lisa’s heartfelt review of the novel proved, it’s a classic tale about “pure human kindness.” So, that said, I am not surprised that Red Dust failed to live up to its potential.
To be honest, this movie would have been greatly improved without the presence of Hilary Swank. I thought Swank was excellent in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry, but I am at a loss to explain her utter lack of acting ability in Red Dust. Her performance is cringeworthy; she takes lines that are already verging on the overdramatic and, in her barely-explained-away American accent, butchers them. In addition to the terrible acting, Swank was obviously cast because 1). presumably she would make the film more appealing to American audiences; and 2). she has a great body. She does. She looks fabulous in the film. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that if she had driven around South Africa in a BMW with the top down, and then proceeded to walk around by herself in kitten heels in a skin-tight dress with her hair blown out clutching an expensive handbag, she would have been mugged in about 0.1 seconds. Utterly. unrealistic. The astoundingly small-minded decision to involve Swank purely for her “sex appeal” also degraded the film’s serious subject matter. Swank aside, this film has many merits. It covers the fraught (not that there is really any period of time in South Africa’s history that hasn’t been fraught) period of time immediately after Nelson Mandela was elected President and the African National Congress assumed political dominance over the country. Under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, the new government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a unique “criminal court” in which perpetrators of violence during apartheid had to confess their crimes publicly in order to be granted amnesty. The key, of course, was full and total honesty. Many of the trials took place in Cape Town, where Red Dust was also set. I went back through my South Africa photos and, amazingly, I’m pretty sure this is the same city hall in Cape Town that was featured in the film:
Photo credit actually goes to my friend Mike, FYI
The movie tells the story of Alex Mpondo, a prominent politician in the African National Congress who was brutually tortured for 31 days by a policeman during apartheid. He is portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave fame. As you can imagine, Ejiofor does a beautiful job expressing pain, and is very convincing as a man who has been so beaten down and damaged that his memory returns to him only in bursts, which are often excruciating to recall. He’s clearly suffering from a severe case of something like PSTD, and gives a meaningful portrayal.
The actress who I was most impressed with, however, was Nomhlé Nkyonyen, who played Mrs. Sizela–a mother grieving her long-dead son, a victim of apartheid. Her acting felt natural, believable; a stark contrast to the shamble that was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) trial in the film. The dissatisfaction in the film is only a fraction of the dissatisfaction and betrayal that millions of South Africans must have felt towards the Commission. There are many who believe, even today, that the TRC did not do enough. Though well-intentioned, it did not bring a strong sense of closure to the years of suffering perpetuated by the apartheid regime. 20 years later–as those attending the movie screening pointed out–South African society is tainted by residual anger and a strong sense of injustice. I could spend more time
criticizing describing the film, but I think that there are much better ways of learning about this period of time in South Africa’s history (i.e., 1996-2000, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was active). If you would like a metaphorical take on the subject, then Jane Taylor’s play Ubu and the Truth Commission is searing in its criticism of the TRC’s shortcomings. (I actually had the chance to interview Jane Taylor–posted here if you are curious and would like to read). The play doesn’t have the highest rating on Goodreads, but I suspect that’s because it’s somewhat confusing. In addition, the documentary Long Night’s Journey Into Day has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, though I haven’t personally watched it myself. Regardless, I can assure you that you will learn very little from watching Hilary Swank prance around in sunglasses and a crop-top. Overall rating (with Hilary Swank): C+ Potential rating (no Hilary Swank): B+ Next up is Tsosti, which I suspect will be much better. Check back next Thursday for the review! Cheers. P.S. Thank you again for all of the lovely comments on my last post! I was really quite hesitant about sharing it, but there was no reason to be. Everyone has a hair story, it seems 🙂