You can take the girl out of the woods, but you can’t take the woods out of the girl — unless, of course, you take the woods away altogether. Such are the tough lessons learned in “Toorbos,” a satisfying marriage of folky period romance and environmental parable from the misty, mossy depths of South Africa’s Knysna forest region: a national beauty spot much enshrined in local literature and lore, but rarely given this kind of grand-scale screen showcase. René van Rooyen’s handsome Afrikaans-language drama is adapted from the last in a celebrated quartet of “Forest Novels” by the late Dalene Matthee, an author whose renown abroad has never quite matched her national-treasure status at home — but is this arthouse fare as internationally accessible as it is locally evocative, unsurprisingly selected as this year’s official South African Oscar submission.
The South African National Parks board is listed as a producing partner on “Toorbos”: no surprise, given how much of a starring role the country’s verdant, enveloping Garden Route is given in the film, with cinematographer Brendan Barnes painting the leafy landscape in practically every shade of mushroom and celadon known to the human eye. The title translates, roughly, as “dream forest” or “magic forest,” though any brushes of magical realism in van Rooyen’s treatment of Matthee’s novel are both sparse and ambiguous. Still, an otherworldly shimmer descends whenever the action returns to the gnarled labyrinth of soaring stinkwoods, yellowwoods and outeniqua trees where protagonist Karoliena Kapp (Elani Dekker) was born and raised — a place her stubborn soul remains even as circumstances force her to leave.
Just shy of her 18th birthday when the story begins in 1933, the independent, green-fingered Karoliena is something of an outsider even within her already marginalized circle of Knysna bosmense (forest people): an impoverished white community regarded with a mixture of scorn and pity by the residents of neighboring towns, who are hardly cosmopolitan city slickers themselves. Her widowed mother (Ira Blanckenberg) is eager for Karoliena, who makes a paltry living offering forest tours to visitors, to escape their world. When handsome, sharp-suited shopkeeper Johannes (Stiaan Smith), a former bosmens made good in town, stops by and sets his sights on the naive teen, her future is all but written.
With little choice in the matter, she accepts his marriage proposal, moving out of the forest and into a solemn, stifling spin on “Pygmalion”: Housed, clothed and educated in matters of urban etiquette by prim chaperone Miss McMaster (Clare Marshall), the human sprite becomes a lady, even as the life drains out of her wide eyes. Van Rooyen’s economical adaptation respects the nuanced feminism of Matthee’s novel: Karoliena is a frustrated victim of the patriarchal norms of her era, but Johannes isn’t a one-note monster or master. His unimaginative sense of male entitlement is occasionally disrupted by sparks of enlightenment, as in one atypically tender, good-humored scene where he teaches his shy bride to drive. A lack of understanding, rather than kindness, is his chief failure. “In the forest, I’m the truth; in the town, I’m a lie,” she tells him, while he remains perplexed that anyone could prefer the former.
Multiple forces conspire against her simple impulse to return. In the distance, the Second World War is brewing, setting Johannes’ life on a different course, while closer to home, the forests themselves are under threat: The South African government has plans to rehouse the bosmense in soulless peripheral townships, enabling wide-scale plans to deforest the region and replant it with non-indigenous trees. The uprooting of a deeply embedded landscape and population alike is depicted with mournful power, underlined with a somewhat heavy hand by Andries Smit’s pretty, plangent score.
There’s subtle irony in the tragedy of Karoliena’s people — who originally came to the area as wood-cutting settlers of Dutch origin — being turfed out as the region is recolonized with alien vegetation, though van Rooyen’s screenplay keeps its political allusions implicit. For all its intriguing sociogeographic contours, “Toorbos” keeps its focus intimately on Karoliena’s passage into womanhood over the course of a decade. It’s a conventional trajectory that nonetheless offers nourishing emotional rewards; the same goes for the unsentimental, hard-won romance at the story’s center.
Fine, quiet performances by Dekker and Smith carry the film through its more prosaic patches. The former, whose guileless poise stirs memories of the younger Keira Knightley, fluently keeps the character’s overlapping voices of child and woman, ingenue and old soul, in balance — via dialogue that also retains the earthy lyricism (in a vivid, sometimes untranslatable Afrikaans register) of Matthee’s writing. “My father was a big tree… my mother was like a dead tree… so the forest took me in,” she says at the outset: a potentially hippy-dippy introduction that, in the stately, solemn world of van Rooyen’s film, seems the plainest and least poetic of truths.