A sensitive, intriguing subject gets well-meaning but too often dramatically shaky treatment in “Man to Man,” a costumer centered on some Victorian scientists who think they’ve found the “missing link” in Africa between apes and humans. Mostly strong casting, led by Kristin Scott Thomas as a wealthy adventuress, gives the film occasional stature, as the over-busy screenplay dutifully checks off the race issues, but helming by French director Regis Wargnier (“Indochine”) keeps stumbling between commercial sweep and talky drama. Biz in Anglo territories looks to be rather unmanly for this contentious choice as the 55th Berlinale’s opener. Gaul bow is April 13.
Film plunges straight into the story with Scottish anthropolgist Jamie Dodd (Joseph Fiennes) and his rifle-totin’ backer, Elena van den Ende (Scott Thomas, who on the basis of the opening reel would make a fine action heroine some day), capturing a couple of pygmies in the Central African rain forest, in 1870. Convinced that he’s found proof of the evolutionary link that obsessed late Victorian scientists in the footsteps of Darwin, Jamie temporarily dubs the feisty male pygmy “America,” adding, “And I’m your Christopher Columbus.”
On the voyage home, Jamie cages the silent pygmies below decks, along with the exotic animals, and generally treats them as subhuman scientific specimens to further his career. Back in Edinburgh, he’s welcomed by colleagues Alexander (Iain Glen) and Fraser (Hugh Bonneville). After signing a contract with Elena, by which the pygmies are “on loan” to them for three months of experiments, they cart their charges back to Alexander’s remote Scottish manse-cum-castle.
For many western auds, film enters its most sensitive area here, as the three researchers take measurements of the pygmies’ facial characteristics and other data in an attempt to prove racial origins. Sure that they’ve now proved their thesis, Alexander notes, “It looks like Adam and Eve were two little black people,” adding ironically, “They’re going to have to repaint the Cistine Chapel.”
Wargnier and his fellow scripters, including Scottish writer William Boyd, who translated and dramatically shaped the final screenplay, just about manage to bring off these sometimes uncomfortable scenes, thanks to the pic’s convincing evocation of the period, which was driven by a helter-skelter passion that everything could be proven by pure scientific enquiry (unencumbered by present-day political correctness). However, characterisation – and larger issues of dramatic relationships – largely goes by the board, despite game playing by most of the cast.
That weakness becomes crucial as the first signs of conflict start to split the group. Jamie, who’s forged the beginnings of a special bond with the male pygmy, now dubbed Toko (Lomama Boseki, a member of a Congolese folk troupe), and the female, Wouli Djenn (non-pro Cecile Bayiha, a Cameroonian), wants his colleagues to postpone their upcoming presentation to the Royal Scottish Academy of Science. He’s now convinced the pygmies show signs of human intelligence and feelings, and are not the long sought-for “missing link.”
But when Toko humiliates Alexander during a forest encounter, Alexander and Fraser press on with their presentation. Elena, too, goes ahead and does a business deal with a local zoo owner to present Toko and Wouli (whose real name is Likola) as a public attraction. But none have counted on the two pygmies’ simple intelligence and the strength of their trust in Jamie.
There’s so much plot and counter-plot in the second hour that the picture lurches hither and yon like a galleon in a swell. At heart, “Man to Man” is a serious, fairly wordy, well-intentioned drama that tries to bridge the perception gap between what modern parlace would dub as “racism” but Victorians saw as pure scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, it also tries to be all things to all auds, throwing in subplots, a couple of which appear mostly to have been left on the cutting-room floor, plus action sequences that recall pics like “King Kong” (with Toko in the Kong role) and “Island of Lost Souls” (chasing the escaping pygmies through a forest at night).
There’s probably a very respectable two-and-a-half-hour movie here. But stripped down to only two hours, “Man to Man” frequently looks uncomfortably naked, unable to do serious justice to its ambitious material. A sense of overall dramatic line has been a weakness in several of Wargnier’s previous works, including even the most successful of his large period dramas, “Indochine.”
Still, for his first pic in English, he’s served well by a generally experienced cast, with Scott Thomas beefing up the essentially token-femme role as Elena, a woman caught between pure business ethics and a deep devotion to Africa. Both Bonneville and Glen also do the best with sketchily backgrounded roles, and newcomers Boseki and Bayiha, with almost no dialogue, bring a mixture of edginess and sympathy to Toko and Likola without falling into the cinematic cliche of noble savages.
Main weakness among the top-billed thesps is Fiennes. He’s fine when gazing intensely at his pygmy charges but, unlike his co-thesps, can’t elevate the often workaday dialogue.
Aside from some rather washed-out color in the African sequences, tech package is okay, though Laurent Dailland’s lensing, unfortunately not in widescreen, lacks a sense of sustained visual sweep in the bigger moments. Art direction and costuming are top drawer, with a comfortable, lived-in look for the late 19th-century setting. Score by Wargnier’s regular composer, Patrick Doyle, pushes the material along without supplying any memorable themes.