"Red Dust" is an odd little movie: It's too earnest to be shrugged off, too well-cast to be badly acted, too well-made to be dismissed out of hand.
But it's not very good.
The film -- the feature debut of director Tom Hooper - revolves around South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as seen through the eyes of a lawyer (Hilary Swank) who's returned to her native Johannesburg to represent an activist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who's brought charges against a former police officer (Jamie Bartlett) trying to claim amnesty for his past acts in the service of the apartheid state.
Of course, things aren't quite as simple as all that, which is where the drama comes from: Both Swank and Ejiofor are tied to the police officer's past, and the further they dig into the case, the closer it seems to be getting to them.
If the story sounds familiar, that's because the plot is strangely similar to John Boorman's "In My Country," which starred Juliette Binoche as the returning expatriate and Samuel L. Jackson as an American journalist. Both movies played the Toronto film festival in 2004, which served to mix them up in critics' minds; "Red Dust" is the one that isn't utterly awful.
But neither is it great; Hooper doesn't know how to modulate his narrative, investing every moment of the film with a heavy, world-weary tone that becomes exhausting and ultimately pointless; he also doesn't quite know how to work Swank's bearing (and barely adjusted accent) into a role written for a displaced European. Sure, Swank's presence probably helped this film get made, but she never seems like she belongs in it.
Ejiofor, on the other hand, emerges once again as a natural movie star, keeping his natural charisma submerged, for the most part, beneath a mixture of shame, rage and righteousness. The movie's insistence that Swank's character is the center of the story seems more and more ill-considered with every passing moment ... another reason why "Red Dust" never quite seems able to turn into the movie it wants to be.
HBO's DVD presents the movie in an enhanced-widescreen transfer that does justice to cinematographer Larry Smith's exquisite landscapes. There are no extras.
STUDIO: HBO Video
RELEASE DATE: Available now
TIME: 111 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: Spanish subtitles.
INTERNET SITE: www.hbo.com