South Africa is the star of Alain Choquart’s handsome post-apartheid melodrama “Ladygrey,” even as the country’s role in the pic’s snaking, distracted narrative never quite comes into focus. Adapted (and relocated) from a pair of novels by French author Hubert Mingarelli, the pic is a little too obviously the product of separate sources: Revolving around the variously unhappy inhabitants of a mountainside village with a violent historical legacy, its individually affecting story strands resist fusing into a more resonant whole. In his debut feature, former cinematographer Choquart unsurprisingly makes rich use of the Drakensberg landscape; his directorial touch is less assured, however, with the film’s human elements, including headliners Peter Sarsgaard, Emily Mortimer and Jeremie Renier. Despite their presence, travel prospects for this Miami fest premiere remain misty beyond a French release in May.
Choquart, who shot the 2000 screen adaptation of Athol Fugard’s Cape Flats-set “Boesman and Lena,” has a deep-rooted affection for South Africa, though it won’t take native viewers long to deduce that “Ladygrey” is an outsider’s vision of the country. For starters, while an opening title card situates the action in the KwaZulu-Natal province, the eponymous town of Lady Grey (the name is only conjoined in the title) is actually in the Eastern Cape, at the foot of Witteberg mountain range. Geographical license notwithstanding, “Ladygrey” otherwise presents a welcome, vivid portrait of a culturally complex region rarely exposed on film — including the French Protestant missions particular to Lesotho and its surrounds. (Nevertheless, this French-Belgian-South African production appears to overestimate the amount of French still being spoken by locals in the area; characters dip in and out of the language in a manner that smacks of funding stipulations, while Afrikaans is implausibly omitted from the multilingual stew.)
Working with regular Michael Winterbottom collaborator Laurence Coriat, Choquart has filleted one principal storyline apiece from Mingarelli’s short novels “Une riviere verte et silencieuse” and “La derniere neige,” bracketing them with a grim apartheid-era backstory that lends the combined narrative a murder-mystery slant. In the first, single father Samuel (Sarsgaard) and his sensitive son Waldo (Jude Foley) eke out a meager living growing rose bushes on their electricity-deprived smallholding, still mourning the loss of Waldo’s mother in enigmatic circumstances. The second is a slightly more maudlin hard-luck tale, as mentally disabled walking-tour guide Mattis (Renier) cares for his invalid father Henri (Claude Rich), saving pennies to buy a fish eagle of blatantly metaphoric plumage.
Acting as a kind of interlocutor between these downbeat rural vignettes is Mortimer’s character, Olive — a kind-hearted nurse and new arrival in Lady Grey, following her marriage to gruff, comparatively wealthy sheep farmer Angus (Irish actor Liam Cunningham, pulling off a more convincing South African accent than his fellow foreign co-stars). Olive is the audience’s proxy as she uncovers grotesque information about human atrocities in the town’s not-so-distant past — the film is set in the early years of this century, with democracy taking a little more time to settle in the sticks — though the truth, once revealed, remains fairly opaque. Choquart and Coriat’s script is at pains to place events in a quintessentially South African context, with details of racial conflict and necklace murders, but the characters don’t always seem to come from the same world. It’s a pity, moreover, that the film’s black characters are so underdeveloped: As Henri’s beleaguered daughter Estelle, Sibongile Mlambo is an ensemble standout, her flinty projection of profound internal pain meriting a more substantial arc.
The film’s leading players, meanwhile, are a mixed bag. Sarsgaard and particularly Mortimer both struggle in spots with the tricky local idiom, their performances sometimes stiffened by imperfectly mannered speech patterns, but also achieve moments of real emotional cogency for their trouble. Sarsgaard’s scenes with Foley — a most thoughtful, disarming screen presence, even when visibly daunted by his French dialogue — are particularly touching, their eventual hashing-out of long-unspoken insecurities bringing the film to a more soulful climax than the culmination of its larger, darker plot. Cunningham is excellent, shading nervy concern into an ostensibly villainous character; saddled with man-child affectations and some overtly novelistic narration, the often-marvelous Renier sadly fares least well.
Nigel Bluck’s polished, earth-hued lensing is obviously the principal asset of a slick technical passage, capturing the scale of the landscape without overly romanticising its beauty — in a film rife with harsh animal symbolism, a panoramic view of a slaughtered flock of sheep lingers in the memory as much as its more picturesque imagery.