A strongly crafted, if unexcitingly simple, drama of moral courage, “The Journey of August King” excels as a richly detailed portrait of rural life in the early days of the Republic. First American feature from Aussie helmer John Duigan offers many finely nuanced shadings and evocative moments in relating a runaway slave girl’s escape from the South with the help of an ordinary white man, but this is unlikely to be enough to put this respectable effort over with more than a specialized audience.
Directors George Roy Hill and, later, Robert Mulligan previously tried to launch screen versions of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a perilous interracial trip through the mountains of North Carolina in 1815, before the existence of the Underground Railroad. As adapted by the author, tale serves up a degree of understated suspense as the net slowly closes around the fleeing pair, but its progress is so straight-forward and repetitive in incident, with low-key revelations dotting the way, that a full head of dramatic steam is never built up.
Jason Patric plays the title character, a decent, unexceptional young widower who stops in a small community to stock up on supplies and make the final payment on his farmland. The citizenry is in an uproar because two slaves have escaped from the richest man in the territory, Olaf Singletary (Larry Drake), who rouses the locals to help him find them.
August has already seen the girl once, and when annalees (Thandie Newton) reappears at his campsite the next night, the devout, principled man can scarcely refuse the starving 17-year-old some basic hospitality, even if helping a runaway constitutes a serious crime. Once he’s allowed her to sleep in his wagon, he passively consents to having her remain there; she does her best to hide when others, including Olaf, come along the road, while August rather rudely avoids solicitous fellow travelers, the better to speed along to his farm.
As time goes on, word gets out that the man aiding the slave is trailing along a milk cow, so August kills his. He rushes through some rapids, losing his pig in the process, then witnesses Olaf capturing the other slave and brutally hacking him to death in his frustration over not finding Annalees, whom he has special personal reasons for finding. By the time they arrive at his farm, August has virtually nothing left, setting up a nicely wrought, religiously tinged elemental lesson in the relative value of material goods, earthly laws and the higher moral plane.
While valid and somewhat interesting, story isn’t sufficiently complex or strongly driven to engage rapt attention, and too many of the significant moments along the way consist of curious or suspicious passers-by trying to figure out what’s up with August, while his illicit passenger hides in the wagon.
But for those willing to relax into the leisurely pace, pic offers the pleasure of an utterly believable, highly specific evocation of a time and place. The constant presence to animals, and their importance to the lives of the citizens, are strongly emphasized, Patricia Norris’ sets and costumes are densely detailed, and there is an ever-present sense of a new nation just beginning to set itself on track. Patric gives an agreeably low-key performance as the simple man led by common decency and correct moral principles to do the right thing despite the law of the land. Newton, first seen in Duigan’s “Flirting” and recently costarring in “Jefferson in Paris,” carries off the part of her desperate teenager in good fashion.
Most compelling turn, however, is delivered by Drake, best known from “L.A. Law,” who gives the determined slave owner a chillingly obsessed, yet human, dimension. This is Sam Waterston’s first outing as a producer, and he turns up briefly as the local law enforcement authority.
Lensing by Slawomir Idziak, Polish cinematographer best known for “Three Colors: Blue,” is extremely mobile and observant, even if the amber filters are laid on a bit heavily at times.