It’s 20 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in South Africa, ending — and in other ways just beginning — a country’s most cathartic and story-rich period of reckoning with its violent history of racial segregation. Anyone who was there at the time will remember the startling, sometimes sick-making, power of the testimonies and apologies that emerged through its broadcast hearings: It was an emotional rinse cycle that no film on the subject, least of all one made principally by outsiders, has fully managed to convey. Following very much in the heavy footsteps of such well-meaning, miscast misfires as John Boorman’s “In My Country” and Tom Hooper’s “Red Dust,” Roland Joffé’s drab, vigourless “The Forgiven” at least gives the Commission’s heroic chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his due by placing him front and center in its history — though it’s debatable whether Forest Whitaker’s glazed impersonation should be considered an honour.
Instead, it’s Eric Bana, cast as a fictionalized composite of various white-supremacist apartheid criminals, who comes closest to electrifying proceedings in what’s at heart a one-room two-hander, unconvincingly padded and populated for the big screen. Joffé and Scottish playwright Michael Ashton’s screenplay is drawn from the latter’s play “The Archbishop and the Antichrist,” which imagined a one-on-one confrontation between Tutu and defiantly racist convicted murderer Piet Blomfeld at Cape Town’s notoriously brutal Pollsmoor Prison. Their interactions amount to a hostile game of psychological cat-and-mouse, as the two men push and pull toward an ugly truth regarding a buried hate crime — both knowing that reconciliation, much less amnesty, is probably not in Blomfeld’s future.
Their scenes together are far the film’s most urgent and propulsive: It’s easy to see how this material, for all its contrivances and historical blurring, might have proved galvanizing on stage. Unfortunately, in opening out the drama beyond the prison, Joffé and Ashton have added little of equivalent force. Instead, the play’s moral and theoretical core is padded out — to a slack two hours — with vague conspiracy-thriller trappings, as Tutu’s interrogation of Blomfeld expands into a larger investigation of a (fictional, if fact-inspired) apartheid police plot, dubbed Operation Hacksaw, responsible for the disappearance of a black teenager.
The grief of the missing child’s mother is piercingly played by Thandi Makhubele, giving the film its most unfiltered stab of feeling, but refashioning a real-life Nobel laureate and theologian into a kind of politically conscious gumshoe rings distinctly false. Meanwhile, a separate strand of Tutu-free tension involving gang violence at Pollsmoor packs a few bloody jolts, but appears to have drifted in from another movie. None of this is helped by mealy dialogue that, while occasionally dipping into the mixed stew of South Africa’s many official languages, too often opts for Hallmark English as its default. “I’m afraid you’ll think these are just white tears,” says the sorrowful wife of one apartheid criminal to Tutu. His reply, inevitable as it is, still earns a full-body cringe: “I think tears have no color.”
Even the most assured performance would struggle under the drippy weight of such words, and Whitaker’s is frequently less than assured. Saddled with a distracting prosthetic schnoz that makes him resemble a newspaper cartoonist’s version of Tutu more than the man himself, the actor often appears stranded between his subject’s signature twinkly mirthfulness and the script’s more portentous demands — while his erratic Anglo-African delivery comes little closer to evoking Tutu’s distinctive, deliberate cadences than if he’d performed the whole thing in a Southern drawl.
Playing an Afrikaans-accented monster as intellectually lucid as he is seethingly dangerous, Bana may have the easier, flashier assignment, but he still compellingly finds the devil in the details of posture, modulation and gaze. Frustrated South African audiences in particular will continue to raise the question of whether such international star casting really does vital indigenous stories many favors — not least when “The Forgiven’s” commercial prospects in any region remain muted at best — but Bana makes a stronger case for outreach than his august co-star. The same argument, of course, may be made of filmmakers: Joffé may direct “The Forgiven” with dutiful integrity, but as with the aforementioned “Red Dust” and “In My Country” (the latter a wasteful bastardization of Antjie Krog’s “Country of My Skull,” the defining literary text of the Commission), the result lacks the earthy, land-planted conviction that even such an imperfect film on the subject as South African helmer Ian Gabriel’s 2004 “Forgiveness” had in its favor.
Needless to say, the formal muscle and gusto of “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission” is some way behind Joffé: Beyond one heart-quickening prison-riot set piece, “The Forgiven” is steered with the kind of compassionate, cautious professionalism that tends to manifest itself on screen in tasteful neutrals: William Wages’ digital lensing is awash in browns and tans of every non-description. Would that such reserve had extended to a dubious closing-credits ballad tremulously sung by Toni Braxton, the profoundly banal lyrics of which (“They say the hardest thing to do/Is to love somebody who/Doesn’t love you”) are carefully written to connote either fractious healing after centuries of systemic racial hatred or, for more radio-friendly purposes, a star-crossed love affair with a difficult man. It’s a calculated ambiguity that says much about this potentially incendiary film’s bland punch-pulling.