Brit TV helmer Tom Hooper's bigscreen debut "Red Dust" is a respectful, well-crafted, but unmemorable drama about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process. Given the track record of major apartheid-themed films to date, pic looks destined for modest impact at international wickets.

Unrelated to the same-titled 1932 Gable-Harlow classic — indeed, nearly the diametric opposite of that pic and its escapist fun — Brit TV helmer Tom Hooper’s bigscreen debut “Red Dust” is a respectful, well-crafted, but unmemorable drama about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process. Toplining Chiwetel Ejiofor as a black Parliamentarian facing former tormentors and Hilary Swank as his lawyer, U.K.-South African co-production makes all the right moves in terms of cultural and political sensitivity, but that same ideological scrupulousness distances human involvement. Given the track record of major apartheid-themed films to date, pic looks destined for modest impact at international wickets.

Troy Kennedy-Martin’s script is based on the novel by Gillian Slovo, whose parents were among South Africa’s best-known (and most persecuted) white anti-apartheid activists. Slovo’s mixed sense of responsibility and repugnance toward her homeland (detailed in her autobiographical “Every Secret Thing”) are channeled here into the fictional figure of Sarah Barcant (Swank).

Long resettled in New York, Sarah returns to South Africa with great reluctance at the behest of her ailing Uncle Ben (Marius Weyers), an activist attorney himself. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission has come — by literal bus-and-truck convoy — to Smitsriver in the Great Karoo region, where Sarah is still regarded as “that wild child.” As a young girl, Sarah dated a local black youth, which resulted in one night’s jail for the girl and something far worse for the boy.

Purpose of the TRC hearings is to encourage “forgiveness not retaliation,” letting the indigenous communities experience catharsis by hearing testimonies from the mostly Afrikaner former Security Police and others who beat, raped or murdered those suspected of conspiring against the white government. If those testifying are judged to be telling the full truth about their guilt, they are granted amnesty.

Ironically, the Smitsriver hearing was requested by an applicant who stands to benefit little from it (save for his conscience), because he’s already serving a prison term for an unrelated murder. Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett) now admits that, when he was a police officer in 1986, he took part in the beating and torture of underground activist Alex Mpondo (Ejiofor), who has become one of the new ANC government’s rising black politicos.

Alex gets a hero’s welcome when he makes a bittersweet return for the hearings. But Uncle Ben and others are less interested in Alex’s ordeal than they are in discovering what happened to his comrade, Steve Sizela. Sizela was jailed at the same time as Alex, similarly brutalized, but never heard from again. His parents blame Alex for getting their son embroiled in the freedom struggle and are looking for closure.

Hendricks is forthcoming about his abuses in regard to Alex, but discussing Steve is another matter. Hendrick’s former superior Piet Muller (Ian Roberts) has “transitioned” to post-apartheid civilian life without his past misdeeds coming out — and he menacingly wants to keep it that way.

Also complicating matters is the fact that Alex has suppressed many of his traumatic memories. He fears full recall could make him look less heroic, damaging his political hopes. Many locals are still willing to brand as “traitor” anyone who gave incriminating information back then, despite the torture.

Crisply organized script does a good job laying out various p.o.v.’s, with eyeblink flashbacks to the bloody ’86 “interrogation” building toward a complete climactic flashback. While pacing is smart and claustrophobia avoided, this remains essentially a courtroom drama, with a tendency to get verbose, explaining everything as though for the public record. That approach leaves little room for the performers to create organic, non-position-paper lives for the characters.

English thesp Ejiofor, whose soulful understatement memorably anchored “Dirty Pretty Things,” is stuck hitting the same couple of notes of remembered pain and fury here, while Swank can’t transcend role’s essential contrivance.

Script mercifully abstains from even hinting at romantic chemistry between two leads. But there’s still an inevitable whiff of gratuitous-white-star-shoulder-for-blacks-to-cry-on, which films of this nature seldom avoid. (It doesn’t help that Swank is too often costumed as if attending a chic cocktail soiree.)

Bartlett is good as a man who finds enough moral fiber to admit his wrongs; Roberts is vividly detestable in a simpler part. Other support actors are solid but pic limits their characterizations to one defining stroke apiece.

Larry Smith’s handsome widescreen lensing, Rob Lane’s inspirational orchestral score, and other contribs further underline both “Red Dust’s” good intentions and its somewhat impersonal conventionality.

Red Dust

U.K.-South Africa

Production

A Distant Horizon, BBC Films presentation in association with Videovision Entertainment and the Industrial Development Corp. of South Africa. Produced by Anant Singh, Helena Spring, Ruth Caleb, David M. Thompson. Co-producers, Sudhir Pragjee, Sanjeev Singh, Joe Oppenheimer. Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay, Troy Kennedy Martin, based on the novel by Gillian Slovo.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision, widescreen) Larry Smith; editor, Avril Beukes; music, Rob Lane; production designer, Mark Wilby; art director, Patrick Cox; set decorator, Darryl Hammer; costume designer, Diana Cilliers; sound (Dolby Digital), Ivan Milborrow; assistant director, Chris Gilliam; casting, Christa Schamberger, Pam Dixon. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 13, 2004. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Sarah Barcant - Hilary Swank Alex Mpondo - Chiwetel Ejiofor Dirk Hendricks - Jamie Bartlett Ben Hoffman - Marius Weyers Piet Muller - Ian Roberts
With: Nomhle Nkonyeni, Greg Latter, Mawonga Dominic Tyawa.

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