On a cold afternoon during the Apartheid era, an aging "Brown" couple arrive at the Swartkops mud flat near Cape Town. They are scavengers rousted out of their shanty town that morning by Afrikaners. They've walked all day carrying what they possess. She may be alcoholic, he's prone to anger: earlier that day, he beat her for something she didn't do. Over the next 12 or 15 hours, their relationship goes through a storm, partly as each remembers earlier events both happy and tragic, and because Lena, over Boesman's objections, takes into their camp an elderly Xhosa tribesman, a Black. Boesman is cruel to the old man, she is kind, and as rain heads toward them, a confrontation develops. Written by
Athol Fugard actually spoke at my college graduation. At the time, I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't heard of him, but after hearing him speak (to be honest, it was so long ago, I can't really remember anything specific he said just that he was impressive), I went out and read a couple of his plays Master Harold and the Boys and The Island. I found them to be very poetic, lyrical works. Boesman and Lena is no different, as sort of a South African version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The writing is astoundingly good, both in its sharp, but unpretentious dialogue and in the twisting, careful shape of its narrative. The writing is at the heart of the film version of Boesman and Lena, even if its (second) transition to film is a little bumpy.
A common issue when adapting a play for the screen is how to make it cinematic. Plays are frequently long on talk and short on visuals (Angels in America is an exception while still talky (and very esoteric), it has outstanding visuals built in). They also usually take place in one or two locations and have only a few longish scenes. Longish scenes are frequently problematic on screen. Films need to move and create pace and rhythm more so now than ever before due to the ever increasing dip in attention spans. This is where Boesman and Lena suffers. It seems that director John Berry was aware of this because every once and awhile, he inserts some wordless flashbacks to give a sense of B&L's history, but it is not enough to make the movie seem filmic in any way. As a matter of fact, sometimes the flashbacks are hindrances some made things more confusing instead of helping to illuminate anything, but I certainly applaud the effort.
Only three actors have lines in Boesman and Lena one of them is for a single line only. If you're going to have two actors dominate a film, they should be actors the likes of Danny Glover and Angela Bassett. They take full advantage of the juicy roles provided by Mr. Fugard. Glover and particularly Bassett are outstanding as the title characters, respectively. Bassett gives the best performance on Reel 13 yet in a classic or an indie as the strong-willed, but mentally confused Lena. She is powerful, funny, charming and captivating. She is able to own Lena in all her states of mind. Glover reminds us of why he was the go to African-American actor of the 80's before the Lethal Weapon series hurt his serious thesp rep. The general conception is that Glover didn't have the passion or the skill anymore to challenge himself to do interesting work (see Robert DeNiro), but this proves that he still has the goods and is a cry to other filmmakers to start taking Danny Glover seriously again.
Boesman and Lena is proof that film-making has significantly more to it than writing and performance. This film had those in spades, but at the end of the day, the supreme talents of Glover, Bassett and Fugard are not enough to make Boesman and Lena a great film. They needed a different kind of writing and direction they needed to work harder to fit the story of B&L into a cinematic framework (For example, what if they didn't stay in one place for the movie what if the conversation(s) took place over several days on the journey? It might not solve everything, but it would be a start). Until then, I can only recommend seeing Boesman and Lena on a live stage, where it belongs.
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