The combo of cultural cringe and a schematic, didactic screenplay strangles the human emotion in “Country of My Skull,” an unquestionably sincere but dramatically stillborn outing by veteran John Boorman set during South Africa’s mid-1990s reckoning with its apartheid past. As American and Afrikaans reporters covering the Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings, Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche trade dialogue more fitting to ethno-political spokespeople than to characters caught up in a country trying to heal its wounds. Given its subject matter, pic undoubtedly will engender reams of earnest coverage, but average auds look unlikely to respond in sizeable numbers.
Film is a particular disappointment coming from 71-year-old Boorman, whose last picture, the quirky John le Carre adaptation “The Tailor of Panama” (2001), though a B.O. disappointment, showed him still bringing a personal style to material. Helmer’s career has been dotted with pictures that play out human dramas in on-the-cusp settings (“Hell in the Pacific,” “Hope & Glory,” “Beyond Rangoon,” “The General”), but in “Country” the director, who traveled widely in South Africa during apartheid, doesn’t rise above the clunky screenplay.
Pic is based on a personal account of the TRC hearings by Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog, who was commissioned to cover the event by state radio and a local newspaper. From this, South African-born, L.A.-based scripter Ann Peacock has hewn an achingly well-meaning screenplay that decorates the old chestnut of a foreigner finding romance and personal fulfillment in an exotic location with a selection of confessions drawn from the actual hearings. Though its intent is admirable, its execution is both clumsy and emotionally distancing.
Jackson plays hard-nosed Washington Post journo Langston Whitfield, dispatched to cover the TRC hearings in December 1995 and interview (the fictional) Col. De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), who was responsible for the apartheid policing.
Whitfield initially is skeptical of the assignment, telling his editor, “I don’t have to travel 5,000 miles to interview a white cop killing black folk; I can do that in my own back yard.”
As he says farewell to his family, Whitfield’s wife hints at flaws in his character with the words, “If you learn anything about reconciliation, let me know.”
Opening reels are full of expository, right-on dialogue as we meet Anna Malan (Binoche), the fictional version of Krog, who has issues with her Afrikaans family but is proud of the solution the country has come up with to settle its past. Unlike a war-crimes tribunal, which seeks retribution, the TRC favors a mutually healing African solution, giving amnesty to anyone who fully confesses past transgressions.
As Whitfield is frequently told, this is based on the African philosophy of “ubuntu,” the link that binds individuals to their community, where one’s transgression harms everyone.
As soon as they meet at a TRC hearing, Whitfield and Malan are facing off over race, color and every issue on the North-South political agenda, as he brings an American perspective to what she sees as a reason for both African and Afrikaaner pride. In one of the sharper lines in the script, Malan tells him, “We can’t climb back on a plane afterwards.”
That’s exactly what Whitfield does at the end, though not before he’s learned respect for local customs, become a wiser person, bedded Malan and been given a fancy artifact for his son back in D.C. For good measure, Malan also profits from meeting Whitfield (“My skin will never forget you,” she coos poetically), as well as discovering a skeleton in her own family closet.
Early on, the movie settles down into a regular rhythm, shuttlecocking between Whitfield and Anna’s evolving relationship; TRC seshes in which painful past events are disinterred; and Whitfield’s interview with De Jager in the latter’s heavily guarded home. The last, chopped up and scattered throughout pic, fails to develop much dramatic power, despite Gleeson’s potentially fine perf as the embodiment of coolly reasoning evil.
Jackson largely gives a stiff, straight-up perf as Whitfield, and there’s little natural chemistry between him and Binoche when they’re not trading cultural and political points. Latter gives a reasonable approximation of an Afrikaans accent but doesn’t create much of a character to root for on a human level. Both thesps are at their most relaxed alongside charismatic young TV star Menzi “Ngubs” Ngubane, as Malan’s sprightly, wisecracking assistant. “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” jokes Ngubane, as Malan takes Whitfield off to meet her folks.
More touches like that would have helped take the PC cringe out of the screenplay and strengthened the emotional clout inherent in the material. (Fiona Ramsay is also, too briefly, fine in this respect as Malan’s no-nonsense boss.) As a result, the TRC sessions, though admirable in their intention, don’t engage the viewer as they should.
Tech credits are pro but with no special flavor, neither gritty nor glossy, and eschewing Boorman’s usual widescreen format. Seamus Deasy’s lensing creates a believable backdrop from South African locations. If only the same could be said for the figures within it.