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After working as an assistant director for Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, Frears made his debut in 1967 with this short feature, a tale of racial tensions set in South Africa during the apartheid era.
Somewhere in South Africa, on a seemingly beautiful day, an old lady sets out with her grandson, her colored cook and chauffeur for her weekly visit to her sister's farm, in spite of the rumors that some sort of uprising has occurred. Signs of unrest are obvious as they make their way in the country, but the old lady ignores them and decides to go on with the journey. When they finally arrive, they discover a deserted house. A group of Black South African militants arrive a little while after. The chauffeur succeeds in diverting them so that the old lady, the little boy (who takes with him the keys of the car) and the cook can escape. Sadly enough, the chauffeur fails to escape as he can't use the car. He is eventually caught by the lynch mob and is burned in his car whilst the little boy looks on in horror. Meanwhile, the old lady picnics calmly with her cook on a hilltop, facing the sunset, as if nothing is going on.
Within 30 minutes, Stephen Frears says more about apartheid and oppression than any long lecture would do. Shot in a crisp black and white, Frears' film depicts a society where racial problems pervert all human relationships (see the opening scenes where the references to people's color are constant). The grandmother is an interesting character: haughty and snob, she obviously lives in her own world and does not seem to care about many things as long as she can stick to her routine. More likable (but not really an angel), the little boy (with whom we can easily identify) loses his innocence. Frears is subtle enough to avoid both melodrama and demonstration, using metaphor to describe a disintegrating civilization. "The Burning" is a clear indication of what Frears would become later: a director with a keen eye to social and racial tensions and a close attention to actors.
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