3½ stars (out of 4)
John Boorman's "In My Country," set during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings in the mid-1990s, is a stirring, large-souled movie about an event that was both an exposure of horror and a celebration of forgiveness.
Here, Boorman powerfully portrays the TRC hearingsinspired by the South African tribal code of "Ubuntu" ("achieving harmony though absolving transgressions")as a noble attempt by a troubled, newly emerging nation to purge old hatreds and unite its populace by replacing lies with truth.
Based on Antjie Krog's "Country of My Skull," an eyewitness chronicle of the hearings (in which policeman, politicians and other representatives of apartheid were granted amnesty, as long as they fully confessed the truth), this is a movie of unshakable idealism and potent emotion. It's so intensely written, fervently acted and beautifully shaped and visualized that its themes and political/moral points are rarely overplayed.
Boorman and screenwriter Ann Peacock have romanticized the events, crafting an imaginary love story between an Afrikaner woman, Juliette Binoche's Anna Malan, and an African-American reporter, Samuel L. Jackson's Langston Whitfield. But the film still carries the ring of truth because most of the hearing scenes are re-created directly from the TRC transcripts. The main characters may be fictitious but the crimes are real.
Binoche's Anna is a writer/reporter from a wealthy Afrikaner family. Jackson's Langston (named for Langston Hughes) is a largely disillusioned writer with activist instincts. As the hearings developand as the two and their fellow reporters (including Anna's African partner Dumi Mkhalipi, winningly played by South African TV star Menzi "Ngubs" Ngubane) listen to the testimonyAnna gets angry and Langston angrier.
The two are increasingly thrown together, and Langston digs further, extracting horrifying stories and admissions from Col. De Jager, the brutal and cynical police boss who knows most of the government's dirty secrets (played by Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, of Boorman's "The General").
As we penetrate more and more into history and the mindset of the old South African ruling class, the horror overwhelms us, just as it does the crowds at the hearings. We can see why Anna and Langston are so open to each other.
Neither is played as a cliche: Binoche portrays Anna with that wistful, deeply intelligent romanticism she displayed in "The English Patient." Even if her accent isn't quite rightand even if you keep wondering why South African Charlize Theron isn't playing this partshe makes you feel the emotions.
So does Jackson, as his rancor mellows slowly into deeper insight. Jackson has always been able to set off explosive emotional sparks on screen; here he believably tamps them down. And Ngubane shows why he's a major star in his own country, displaying real charm.
Boorman, the creator of "Deliverance" and "Point Blank," is an expert at adventure or crime stories with a moral but unsentimental center, and this is a film and project about which he obviously cares deeply.
It's less adventure film, though, than mystery. And the mystery lies both in the revelation of apartheid's gruesome facts and the deeper puzzle of why they occurred. To err is human, the story tells us. And to understand, if not completely to forgive, can be divine.
"In My Country"
Directed by John Boorman; written by Ann Peacock, based on the book "Country of My Skull" by Antjie Krog; photographed by Seamus Deasy; edited by Ron Davis; production designed by Derek Wallace; music supervisor Philip King; produced by Robert Chartoff, Mike Medavoy, Boorman, Kieran Corrigan, Lynn Hendee. In English and Afrikaans. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at Loews Piper's Alley Theatre. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: R (for language, including descriptions of atrocities, and for a scene of violence).
Langston Whitfield - Samuel L. Jackson
Anna Malan - Juliette Binoche
De Jager - Brendan Gleeson
Dumi Mkhalipi - Menzi "Ngubs" Ngubane
Anderson - Sam Ngakane
Elsa - Aletta Bezuidenhout
Edward Morgan - Lionel Newton
Boetie - Langley Kirkwood