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Subtlety lost in film about evils of racism
'Boesman and Lena': Going bluntly where others have gone before
(CNN) -- Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" is a serviceable piece of theater about an impoverished black South African couple who fall into a Beckett-like argument when they're chased from their shantytown by ruthless white developers.
Yet director John Berry's filmed adaptation of the play, which stars Danny Glover and Angela Bassett as the title characters, suffers from a distinct lack of movement. Bassett, in particular, stinks up the joint by playing virtually every emotion to the kids in the cheap seats. You know you're working overtime when you manage to reference both Sidney Poitier and Lillian Gish in the same performance.
Theater lovers will argue until the end of time that stage acting is a deeper, more genuine form of communication than carrying on in front of a camera. That may or may not be true, but one thing seems certain: There's nothing more exasperating than watching an actor who can't distinguish between the two styles.
"Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992) is a good example of extremely stagy material retaining its bite on the big screen, even after the performers have turned down the intensity a few notches. "Boesman and Lena," on the other hand, is a reminder of how silly talented actors can look when they neglect to periodically lay off the throttle.
Part of the blame for Bassett's histrionics, unfortunately, falls to Berry. He died while the film was in post-production, so it stings a bit to criticize his work.
It's a fact, though, that a director is supposed to guide his actors. If this performance is the result of Bassett scaling back, it would either be horrifying or terribly amusing to see where she started out. You half expect her to lie down and rest after some of her reaction shots.
Boesman and Lena have fled to a lonely stretch of the South African Cape Flats, with only a few bottles and pots as possessions. They find shelter in a rusty old car that's covered with a tarp. This sort of repugnant, racist upheaval has continually shattered their lives, and Lena finally wants to talk about their hapless journey. She remembers the early days with Boesman, when tenderness flowed between the two lovers and they shared a decent home.
Now, however, life has crushed Boesman's spirit. He's an angry drunk who's only looking for another bottle of wine and a reason to clench his fists and strike the amazingly loyal Lena. Glover is pretty unsubtle himself, but he looks like Peter Sellers in "Being There" (1979) next to Bassett.
Not long after making camp, the couple is surprised by the arrival of an aging Xhosa tribesman. The old man (played by Willie Jonah) looks like a hobo and can't speak the couple's language. Boesman isn't interested in talking to him anyway. In fact, he views the man as existing on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
The point is repeatedly made that Boesman, even after suffering at the hands of a racist government, is looking for a whipping boy. His mistreatment of the tribesman is selfish in the extreme, and thus engenders several kick-out-the-jams disputes with Lena.
Lena treats the man as another weary traveler who deserves a place to rest, a swig of water, and an opportunity to share his suffering with sympathetic people. In reality, though, he's little more than a device that enables Lena to ramble on about whatever part of her life she's currently obsessing over.
There's a fine, silent tenderness between Bassett and Jonah during the few moments when Bassett calms down. Otherwise, she's the Howard Cosell of racial intolerance, giving a windy play-by-play that quickly comes to sound like a wordless jabber.
Berry, who was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s, had every reason to rail against fanaticism. "Boesman and Lena" is too blunt, but still conveys a necessary message. It's just debatable whether a powerful theme automatically makes for a good movie.
"Boesman and Lena" contains some bad language and a bit of violence. It's the kind of thing that would go over better in a high school classroom. Rated PG-13. 88 minutes. In color and black-and-white.
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