Powerhouse performances by Angela Bassett and Danny Glover and an unusually physical approach to theatrical material are the hallmarks of “Boesman & Lena,” an excellent screen adaptation of Athol Fugard’s play about a down-and-out South African couple. In the final work of his long and varied career, the late Yank director John Berry has remained faithful to the stage piece while making a real movie out of it, resulting in a distinctive film that resembles few others. African setting, intense verbiage and purposely abstract dramatic situation help earmark this French-financed production mainly for discerning audiences, although shrewd marketing could make use of star names and strong reviews to put this over as a class release for audiences looking for something different. Subsequent life on the tube internationally is good.
Given the ferocity with which the title characters spar while spinning their wheels in a remote, forlorn location, “Boesman & Lena” manages the trick of earning comparisons to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” one moment and “Waiting for Godot” the next. Written during the heyday of apartheid and first staged in New York in 1970, with Berry directing James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, the play possessed a political subtext at the time that the film’s unspecified (but clearly contemporary) time setting pushes to the background. But just as the altered sociopolitical landscape serves to stress the universal, rather than topical, stature of Fugard’s work, Berry’s vibrant, sometimes startlingly tactile treatment is rooted in a sense of reality that removes any traces of windy symbolism that other directors might have encouraged in such a story. Result is the most fully realized rendition imaginable of this material.
Only visual traces of oppression per se come at the outset, with lightning B&W images of a shantytown being bulldozed. Enter Boesman (Glover) and Lena (Bassett), trudging through the spectacular environs of Cape Town on their way (back) down to the bottom of the societal ladder. Lugging their few worldly belongings with them, he on his back, she on her head, they settle on a little patch of sand and rock amidst some mud flats outside town to enact, for no doubt the umpteenth time, a peculiar can’t-live-with-or-without ’em ritual of love, hate, taunting, abuse, violence and symbiotic button-pushing.
As he goes about assembling a makeshift abode for the cold night ahead, the hulking Boesman quietly deflects all the “rubbish” Lena spews out in a nonstop, unedited torrent. Indeed, most of what she says is talk just for the sake of talk, hardly worthy of response from someone who’s heard it all before. But embedded in her sputterings about their assorted deprivations and migrations is a vague but urgent desire to make sense of their life together and the desperate straits at which they’ve arrived.
Along the way, snippets of information about the couple’s past are dropped in , sometimes via quick flashback visualizations that show Boesman and Lena in (mostly) better times and also provide a useful contrast to their present plight. Among the revelations: The couple’s only child died at six months, giving them a bond of great pain that has no doubt influenced their relationship to an incalculable extent.
Twenty-five minutes in, their mutual musings and recriminations take on a different dynamic due to the arrival of a man even lower on the societal ladder than they are, a “Kaffir,” or pure-blooded black African. Thin as a rail and lost, the man affords an easy target for Boesman, whose abuse of Lena increases mightily when she, who has nothing, takes a protective posture toward the man, inviting him to sit at their campfire and spend the night. Conflict pits Boesman’s essentially insecure, intolerant and ungenerous nature against Lena’s naturally open and sharing inclinations, and the standoff delineated through the first act degenerates into brutality and a seeming breach through the subsequent rainy night and, finally, into a satisfying sort of transfiguration that finds things the same yet significantly altered.
In adapting Fugard’s play into an exceedingly well-paced film that runs under 90 minutes, Berry judiciously trimmed some of Lena’s more excessive rants and, smartly, all but eliminated the Xhosa-language dialogue of the elderly African. Much more important, however, is what he brought to the story as the director. The setting alone is extraordinary, a squalid little patch of wasteland set ironically against a distant backdrop of magnificent mountains and the occasionally visible skyline of one of the world’s most strikingly located cities. Boldly using the widescreen format for what is essentially a two-character piece, Berry intensely physicalizes the landscape, tattered costumes, few props and the actors themselves, who play out the characters’ psychodrama in an evocative atmosphere of subtly changing light, which is beautifully captured and calibrated by cinematographer Alain Choquart.
In this context, the performances emerge with an almost ferocious strength. Along with “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” pic represents a career high point for Bassett, who, while remaining beautiful and sexy, abandons her recently cultivated glamorous image to dig to the core of Lena’s fierce, probing, contentious, compassionate character. Actress socks over her portrait of a restless woman whose constant jabbering is her way of getting “somebody to listen.”
With such a partner, Boesman can scarcely get a word in edgewise and alternately deflects and ignores what his woman is saying. But the character becomes more assertive as the yarn progresses, and Glover superbly reveals both the beastliness and the vulnerability of this essentially inward man, who husbands his liquor and prejudices with exacting attention. Both thesps expertly effect soft Afrikaans-tinged South African accents that are easily understood, even if some of the vocabulary and local references will be lost on most viewers.
Cinematically, the fraying of Boesman and Lena’s mutual attachment is beautifully counterbalanced by a little musical flashback featuring a glowing Lena dancing for Boesman’s benefit at an outdoor party. It’s a wonderfully heady and sensual interlude that warms the film at a most opportune moment. Wally Badarou’s sparingly used score lends emotional resonance at key junctures.
Barry died at the age of 82 on Nov. 29, just as he was finishing post-production work. Indisputably, the film possesses a vigor and energy that would be impressive for a director of any age.