An extremely rare case of a pic version both written and directed by the book’s original author, “The World Unseen” reps a strong argument for leaving screen adaptations to other, more capable hands. So-so period drama by U.K.-born, South African-raised scribe Shamim Sarif emerges as a rather flat, un-nuanced version of her debut novel about racial tensions and Sapphic attraction under ’50s apartheid. Solidly cast, with Indian-Canadian Lisa Ray and Indian-American Sheetal Sheth as the two leads, the film misses the tome’s simple emotional poetry, positioning itself more as an ancillary than theatrical earner.
Though “World” is Sarif’s first film to hit the bigscreen, it’s actually her second outing as a director. Another convention-busting lesbian tale, “I Can’t Think Straight,” also starring Ray and Sheth, is only now in post-production, following refinancing after the original shoot.
Setting is Cape Town, 1952, where young, free-thinking Amina (Sheth) co-owns a cafe with half-black, middle-aged Jacob (David Dennis). Into Amina’s life one day drifts Miriam (Ray) — a devoted housewife with two kids (plus one more on the way) and a patriarchal husband, Omar (Parvin Dabas) — who visits the cafe with her vampy sister-in-law, Farah (Natalie Becker). As their eyes meet, it’s attraction at first sight between the two femmes — or at least, on Amina’s side.
Miriam and Omar run a small general store out in the sticks, where Miriam feels more and more trapped. When Amina comes visiting while Omar is in town for a roll in the hay with Farah, the sexual tension between the two women rises.
Though Sarif, 38, is too young to have directly experienced the period herself, the story draws directly on her grandmother’s memories of apartheid, small details of which make the transition from novel to screenplay. But what worked on the page often comes across way more cliche on screen, especially in the central lesbian relationship.
Common ground between the two protags — both of whom were born in India but moved to South Africa seven years ago — is neatly sketched. But with her trousers, hat and free-flowing hair, Amina seems a far too modern, uncloseted lesbian, while Miriam, all neat and tidy and misty-eyed, is an obvious candidate for turning.
Other characters are also overly schematic, especially Omar as Miriam’s chauvinist husband. A parallel subplot, involving a putative romance between Jacob and a white postmistress (Grethe Fox), gets by on the two thesps’ acting smarts — especially Dennis — but can’t disguise the fact that the movie’s main motor is Miriam and Amina’s relationship, and when it’s finally going to go beyond simmering looks.
In more experienced hands, the mix of sexual and racial politics might have jelled. But Sarif’s by-the-book scripting and direction merely get the job done, while d.p. Mike Downie’s flatly lit interiors add no atmosphere. A short montage of Amina dressing before a crucial liaison with Miriam stands out as an isolated example of visual poetry.
The open-faced Sheth (“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”) and model-girl looker Ray (“Water”) generate reasonable on-screen chemistry, with the former making most of the going. Direct-sound soundtrack could do with more post-synching, and the score (described by producer Hanan Kattan as still a work in progress) needs more through-composition.
Though shot on 35mm, pic was screened at both the London and Toronto fests in an (excellent) HD version, owing to lack of time to strike prints.