Returning to gay themes after his little-seen heterosexual relationship drama “The Law of Enclosures,” Canadian helmer John Greyson’s latest is a period piece involving forbidden same-sex, interracial love in early South Africa. Co-directed with that country’s activist filmmaker Jack Lewis, “Proteus” has enough erotic and exotic content to win back some of the arthouse viewers previously beguiled by Greyson’s “Lilies.” But pic lacks that gem’s lush aesthetics and impassioned complexity, ending up a tad remote. Sales in various territories are assured, though returns will be modest.
Based on an actual criminal case in 1735, script by two helmers plays freely with the (few) historical facts. Formerly employed as a servant, and thus having learned to speak English and Dutch, Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brown) is arrested to trying to steal back cattle whites had already stolen from his people. Exonerated on that charge — but found guilty of insolence toward a white man — he’s shipped off for 10 years’ hard labor to a penal colony off coastal Cape Town.
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There, his resourcefulness and language skills curry favor, particularly with Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth), an English botanist stationed there to develop exportable flower strains. Black and white prisoners keep themselves fairly segregated, though no one much seems to associate with brooding Dutch sailor Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands), whose offense has already branded him as “the faggot.”
Both Blank and Jacobsz are drafted to help with Niven’s project, affording them a certain amount of unsupervised time as they carry water to the garden. Despite his outward scorn and potential risk, Blank proves quite willing during these excursions to satisfy mutual sexual urges.
After Niven returns to Europe, the harsh yet irregularly applied prison discipline that had so far eluded lovers Blank and Jacobsz — though it’s resulted in the flogging death of Blank’s closest black friend — catches up with them at last. Caught in the act, they at first refuse to confess anything. But Jacobsz finally caves under pressure, and not even the intervention of a returned Niven can forestall their fate.
Story ends up seeming smaller than it should — in large part because the directors do little to convey the passage of time (in real life, Blank and Jacobsz were apparently lovers for 17 years). And there are related points of plot confusion, such as the fact that it seemingly takes Niven about two minutes to return from Amsterdam to the colonies.
Also, script doesn’t sufficiently fill in the blanks left by historical record regarding the personalities involved, which robs the central relationship of emotional (let alone tragic) depth. Pic should have gotten more mileage out of a concurrent scandal in Amsterdam, just briefly noted here, in which 70 men (including the real-life botanist’s assistant) were tied and garroted as sodomites.
While duo’s scenes alone together carry palpable, relatively graphic sexual heat, only the striking Sandilands (a popular local thesp from TV serial “7deLaan”) communicates yearning of a more romantic nature. Multilingual, crafty Blank is a potentially complex bicultural figure who should have been fleshed out further in the writing; Brown has an easy camera presence, but can’t make character’s final sacrifice seem more than an abrupt change of tune. Canadian Smyth brings sympathetic intelligence to what’s essentially an observer role.DV lensing, nicely transferred to 35, offers colors muted and slightly distorted, so greens, pinks and whites predominate. Credible period mood is somewhat jarred by incongruous inclusion of some clearly contemporary buildings, costumes and objects (like a jeep). Unlike most of Greyson’s prior efforts, these aberrations remain just that, rather than serving any multi-layered, fourth-wall-breaking intellectual agenda. Largely string quartet-based score by Don Pyle and Andrew Zealley is a plus.