Unimaginable to most non-residents, the paranoia that is part of living in South Africa is realized with subtle specificity in “Layla Fourie,” the third feature from Johannesburg-born helmer Pia Marais, and the first to be set in her home country. An unusual character-driven thriller, the pic centers on a young polygraphist paralyzed with guilt after a hit-and-run accident, though its sharply crafted psychology is a tad too opaque to engage auds as it should. Still, as an all-too-rare dose of female perspective from South Africa, this intriguing European co-production should travel extensively on the heels of its Berlin competition bow.
Though not ostensibly a political story, the film is shot through with environmental and sociological details that suggest the nationwide vulnerabilities faced by citizens like the eponymous protagonist (Rayna Campbell), a single, non-white woman, as well as the concern with personal security that simultaneously unites and separates the entire South African population.
The film opens in Johannesburg, where the attractive, intelligent but evidently hard-up Layla is being interviewed for a job as a lie-detector operator. She gets it, and is immediately assigned to a post conducting pre-employment screening at a casino resort in rural KwaZulu-Natal, several hours’ drive away. With her needy young son Kane (Rapule Hendricks) in tow, she heads off, only for disaster to strike on the road when, approaching a stalled car she incorrectly suspects is lying in wait for her, she runs over the person who had been driving — a tragic error of judgment, but one perhaps more comprehensible to South Africans familiar with horror stories of latenight attacks on remote byways. Failing to reach the hospital in time, she dumps the body.
Layla is visibly rattled as she settles into her new assignment. Her nerves certainly aren’t eased when, in the most significant of several plot contrivances in Maris and Horst Markgraf’s otherwise spare script, one of her interview candidates, Pienaar (German thesp August Diehl, curiously cast), turns out to be the missing man’s son. As Layla, suppressing her evident attraction to Pienaar, becomes more improbably entangled in his affairs, as well as those of his stricken stepmother Constanza (ensemble standout Terry Norton), her unhappy secret becomes ever harder to hide.
It’s to the script’s credit that the irony of Layla’s profession, in light of her concealed crime, is largely allowed to speak for itself. In a society where most live behind a dense network of razor wire and prison-like security doors — a visual metaphor amply underlined in Constanza’s fortressed house — trust is at a premium, and a lie detector cuts no more ice than any other method of human judgment.
The challenge of basing a story around such instinctively guarded characters is in enabling the audience to read their motivations, and it’s not a trick Marais entirely pulls off; many viewers might find certain characters’ actions more inscrutable than intriguing. Campbell’s sternly disciplined, tightly wound performance isn’t always a help in this regard: the actress is a compelling physical presence, but a some of her line readings and reactions at key emotional junctures are underplayed to the point of impenetrability. Norton is excellent as a woman embittered by years of fear, while the otherwise fine Diehl’s wobbly South African accent is a distraction in a film otherwise so authentic in its milieu. Still, he’ll serve as a draw in co-producing country Germany, where the film is already set for a July release.
The tech package is of a very high standard, with rising French d.p. Andre Chemetoff’s crisp, sun-baked lensing making the most of the tall skies and bleakly grassy sprawl of the country’s inland East Coast, a refreshing choice of landscape for viewers accustomed to the more conventionally picturesque terrain of the Cape.