Inspired by a true South African case from 1933, as well as ongoing contempo ones, “A Reasonable Man” is a thoughtful courtroom drama that chews over such unfashionable questions — in mainstream cinema, at least, since the ’60s — as What is true faith? and Are Western definitions of “a reasonable man” still valid in today’s multicultural societies? Result, especially in its latter stages, makes for unusually edifying fare and sidesteps most of the usual cliches of a liberal white lawyer defending a black kid. But pic’s modest production values and lack of star names tag this more as quality small-screen drama in developed markets. Film opened in South Africa in mid-August to reportedly good business for a local movie.
Corporate lawyer Sean Raine (helmer Gavin Hood) and his wife, Jennifer (Janine Eser), are enjoying a spot of canoeing in Zululand when they briefly make the acquaintance of herdboy Sipho (Loyiso Gxwala). On their way home, they stop off at a village at night to find Sipho standing frozen to the ground with a blood-stained hatchet in his hand and a grieving mother holding a dead baby with its skull cleaved.
Sean, who’s been away from South Africa for nine years, after being traumatized by his accidental killing of a black kid while a draftee during the war with neighboring Angola, pries the case away from another lawyer and elects to defend Sipho himself. Sipho claims he was killing a tikoloshe (evil goblin), not a human baby, and Sean, pitted against a modernist prosecuting lawyer (Vusi Kunene) and old-style English judge (Nigel Hawthorne), seeks to prove that the homicide was justifiable, not culpable, as it was done in true faith.
Meat of the movie is the final 40 minutes as the courtroom scenes unfold, climaxing in a fine speech by Sean (strongly played by Hood, here debuting as a feature director) in which some complex issues and definitions of law are neatly boiled down to the pithier demands of cinema.
In these reels, vet Hawthorne, as the sympathetic but by-the-book judge, brings some dramatic stature to the picture which, up to that point, has been solidly acted and directed though without any special tension or visual oomph. As the black prosecutor who would like to see tribal beliefs eradicated, Kunene impresses in a schematic role. Tech credits are OK.