Friday November 10, 1995
On Hollywood's shamefully slim list of movies dealing with American slavery, there are next to none about the attitudes of non-plantation whites toward the runaways they encountered. Or about the relationships that were often forged between them.
We've got Huck Finn and Jim and that's about it.
And now, with John Duigan's smart and finely detailed adaptation of John Ehle's 1971 novel "The Journey of August King," and a pair of terrific performances from Jason Patric and Thandie Newton, the short list expands to include North Carolina settler August King and slave girl Annalees.
August's three-day journey, from a trading post back to his mountain home with the runaway hiding in his cart, doesn't have the dramatic highs of Huck Finn's adventures, and there aren't many moments you would consider remotely fun. Ehle, who also wrote the screenplay, was looking back with a century's more perspective and guilt than Mark Twain, and has zeroed in on the emotional issue of what it was to have been both human and property at the same time.
Beautifully shot in the pine forests of western North Carolina by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, "August King" takes us back to the pre-abolitionist, pre-Underground Railroad years of the early 19th Century, when runaway slaves were tracked like game in the woods north and west of the plantation South.
The punishment for aiding a runaway was the destruction of the abettor's own property, and in the harsh environment where the settlers survived on subsistence farming and barter, that was nearly the same as a death sentence.
That's the situation facing August King--a recently widowed farmer whose worldly possessions include the log cabin, a cart, a horse, a milk cow, a pig and pair of geese--after he is approached on the trail by the 17-year-old Annalees and offered her owner's silver watch in exchange for his help. August rejects the watch, but having met her abusive owner (Larry Drake) can't reject her plea.
Ehle and Duigan, the Melbourne director perhaps best known for his erotic films "Sirens" and "Wide Sargasso Sea," have packed a lot of human dynamic into this simple, straightforward story. The movie stumbles at the beginning, introducing August as a passive Christlike figure pausing to feed a biscuit to a dying dog (surely, this man will love all God's children), and at the very end, when he nicely summarizes the lessons of his experience. But the story itself is handled with such delicacy, finesse and fundamental humanity that its casual pace becomes a pleasure.
Patric underplays August in a way that limits the emotional payoffs but which seems absolutely in keeping with the character's lifestyle, education and predicament.
The filmmakers set some traps for themselves that they carefully avoid stepping into. There is sexual tension between August and Annalees that grows out of their vulnerabilities and--as the pack closes in on them--their interdependence. But it is unspoken, and very deliberately held in check, which charges their scenes instead of undermining them.
The Journey of August King, 1995. PG-13, for a scene of shocking violence. A Miramax Films/Addis-Wechsler Pictures production, released by Miramax. Director John Duigan. Producers Nich Wechsler, Sam Waterston. Screenplay by John Ehle, from his novel. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Editor Humphrey Dixon. Music Stephen Endelman. Production design and costumes Patricia Norris. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. Jason Patric as August King. Thandie Newton as Annalees. Larry Drake as Olaf Singletary. Sam Waterston as Mooney Wright.