- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

“In My Country” has garnered reluctantly negative reviews, reflecting a clear if unwelcome consensus: Most critics would have preferred a movie that set out to recall and champion the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, authorized a decade ago by the South African government in a remarkable effort to encourage a purgation of the grief and guilt left festering after the demise of apartheid.

The failure of director John Boorman

cqd his associates to live up to this admittedly daunting and perhaps fiction-averse subject can be measured in the consistently pained rejection.

Bad timing also has contributed to the bad reaction. The shortcomings of “Hotel Rwanda” as semidocumentary re-enactment never cost the movie a fundamental thematic and emotional esteem. The central characters were in the thick of the genocidal crisis being depicted, and they were always sympathetically portrayed by Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo.

Caught without a secure human-interest foundation, “In My Country” tries to muddle along with right-thinking indignation during tribunal highlights and excruciating pulp romance in the off hours.

Screenwriter Ann Peacock gets the rap for what had to be a foolhardy and unready scenario from the outset. Its priority is a joke: contriving an international, interracial romance between spectators who weren’t directly involved in the apartheid saga.

Juliette Binoche is stuck with Anna Malan, a fitfully tearful adornment from the Afrikaner gentry who is a writer-broadcaster covering commission hearings for what must be the South African equivalent of National Public Radio. Samuel L. Jackson will need to live down Langston Whitfield, supposedly a correspondent from The Washington Post, which ought to have a quarrel with this representation.

In addition to fronting for that absurdly preppy name, Mr. Jackson leaves the unfortunate impression that he has been assigned solely on the grounds of attitude. The ostensible hero doesn’t appear to have devoted much homework to the country, its cultures or its history, modern or ancient.

Of course, he’s not really meant to be erudite or observant in attractive ways. He’s there to “break” one sensational atrocity case as a matter of expedience and to provide the leading lady with romantic solace and reaffirmation. Also an expedient obligation.

The fact that liberal, apologetic, susceptible Anna is married and has three young sons may tarnish her Truth and Reconciliation affair in the minds of skeptical onlookers. Whitfield owns up to a son of his own but never drops a hint about the boy’s having a mother.

The filmmakers don’t seem to realize that they’re giving all four boys plenty of reasons to despise philandering parents, assuming this pitiful movie ever gets back to them.

The co-stars begin to look kittenish to a fault when superinfatuated; in my notes, I began to refer to Anna as “Gidge” and Langston as “Moondoggie.”

“In My Country” loses touch with the overriding gravity of a process that documented about 22,000 chronicles from victims and another 1,200 from accused victimizers seeking amnesty.

The filmmakers summarize four or five gruesome atrocity stories but remain preoccupied with carnal therapy among the journalistic elite. Mr. Jackson is credited with a big exclusive: private confessions from a notorious former security brute played by Brendan Gleeson.

An effective theater piece might be constructed around this pretext or something like it, but everything in the movie belongs to an absent-minded, trivializing, scatter-gun continuity. As a parting blunder, two characters are knocked off shortly before the fade-out.

Was “In My Country” a project Mr. Boorman really couldn’t resist, despite the ramshackle scenario? Now 72, he has been more notable as a memoirist and editor (of the highbrow film journal Projections) in recent decades.

He completed only two features in the 1990s; his last confident and satisfying movie was 1987’s “Hope and Glory,” a family memoir that didn’t require a prodigious reach for authenticity.

It’s possible that “In My Country” lured him back for a lot of the wrong reasons, masquerading as doing the right thing.

**

TITLE: “In My Country”

RATING: R (Frequent allusions to atrocities; occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; subplot about an adulterous affair)

CREDITS:rected by John Boorman. Screenplay by Ann Peacock, based on the book “Country of My Skull” by Antjie Krogcq. Cinematography by Seamus Deasy.

RUNNING TIME:

104 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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