SHEPHERDS AND BUTCHERS follows a jaded lawyer, John Weber (Steve Coogan), who takes on a seemingly hopeless multiple murder case and uncovers scandalous shortcomings in South Africa's capital punishment system as he mounts a defense for a prison guard traumatized by the executions he took part in.
This beautifully filmed drama, set in apartheid era South Africa manages to be at once brutal and sensitive. Steve Coogan and Andrea Riseborough face each other in the trial of a psychologically broken prison guard, accused of a multiple murder. Graphic and harrowing at times, delicately picking an unconventional course to its conclusion. Effectively a period piece, convincingly set in 1980's Pretoria, filmed in Cape Town in pleasing detail. Centred in the courtroom, but repeatedly flashing back to the accused's past as a prison guard on death row and following Coogan's progress through the trial in his defence. The prison and execution scenes play out in sickening detail, with a host of convincing supporting actors. The courtroom too has several well observed characters, from the judge to the bereaved relatives. The accused guard is well played; too, too young, and a mental and emotional shell of a man, opening up painfully slowly during the piece. Coogan though is the star; at first reluctant, then intrigued and finally quite determined as the defence counsel. The camera holds him close in this very convincing portrayal. The whole film is beautiful, cleverly lit and stylish, with great attention to all the details of the time and the place. The Afrikaaner Warrant Officer quietly chilling, the courtroom relatives, glorious. A genuinely emotional and thought provoking film, touching on several aspects of the capital punishment debate. It alternately brought to mind Oscar Pistorius' trial and Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit'. Be prepared for mixed feelings at the end!
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