MOVIE REVIEW : New Dimensions to Eloquent ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’
For a lot of Americans, Zoltan Korda’s 1951 film of South African novelist Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” served as an unforgettable introduction to the evils of apartheid, and had inescapable application to the still heavily segregated United States of the early ‘50s.
The makers of the handsome, period-perfect new version of Paton’s novel, which also became the basis of the stage and film musical “Lost in the Stars,” seem to understand that they cannot hope for the impact of revelation of the original film.
Yet there are understandable reasons for a remake at this time, and the new “Cry, the Beloved Country” confers a mythic, tragic dimension to South Africa’s brutal past while evoking a spiritual dimension in pointing to a future of racial equality and harmony.
What director Darrell James Roodt (a South African) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (an Englishman born in Cape Town) have done is to stage the Johannesburg odyssey of rural black minister Stephen Kumalo as an enactment of a familiar kind of ritual--one akin to a Nativity play in which everyone’s demeanor and behavior is formal and symbolic and in which everything that occurs has the quality of inevitability.
It may well have been the best approach to a story written in 1946--during, incidentally, a brief period of postwar hope for a changing South Africa that was dashed when already crushing de facto segregation became official South African government policy in 1948.
With his towering presence and deep voice, James Earl Jones is perfectly cast as Kumalo, who reluctantly leaves the beautiful countryside for the big city he has never seen to visit his sister (Dambisa Kente), reportedly desperately ill but in reality driven to prostitution.
Meanwhile, his younger brother John (Charles S. Dutton) has lost faith in Christianity and has become a civil rights leader organizing a bus boycott. The pastor now decides to search for his estranged son Absalom (Eric Miyeni), only to catch up with him in prison, where he has been arrested for shooting to death a white man during a robbery attempt. Absalom, who admits to the shooting, insists it was accidental, a response to overwhelming fear.
In a stunning coincidence of double irony, the victim turns out not only to have been a dedicated activist on behalf of blacks but also the son of the pastor’s neighbor, a rich Afrikaans farmer, James Jarvis (Richard Harris), a firm but not virulent segregationist.
All of this unfolds eloquently, with both Jones and Harris depicting two men no less strong for revealing vulnerability. The gaunt Harris, so good at showing grief beneath pride, is asked to portray a man who undergoes a profound change of heart, enabling him to accept rather than reject his late son’s views and to form a bond with the similarly bereft pastor that transcends racial barriers. Harris is quite capable of this but deserves more screen time to keep this transformation from seeming so abrupt.
The film’s key relationship, however, is between the pastor and the vibrant young Johannesburg priest (Vusi Kunene, who brings a vital spark to a somber film) who befriends him, broadening the older man’s understanding in the process.
In bringing “Cry, the Beloved Country” to the screen in such a resolutely traditional style at this point in South Africa’s history, it was probably impossible to avoid a certain feeling of self-consciousness, even self-importance. These qualities unfortunately are reinforced by John Barry’s soaring old-fashioned score, the kind that immediately evokes all those old screen epics glorifying the British empire. Fortunately, in image and structure Roodt and Harwood go for a steadfast simplicity that builds to a beautiful moment of rekindled faith for the grieving Rev. Kumalo that lifts “Cry, the Beloved Country” to a climactic moment of redemption.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for emotional thematic elements and brief language. Times guidelines: It is too intense for young children.
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‘Cry, the Beloved Country’
James Earl Jones: The Rev. Stephen Kumalo
Richard Harris: James Jarvis
Charles S. Dutton: John Kumalo
Vusi Kunene: Theophilus Msimangu
Eric Miyeni: Absalom
A Miramax presentation. Director Darrell James Roodt. Producer Anant Singh. Executive producers Harry Allan Towers, Sudhir Pragjee, Sanjeev Singh. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood; based on the Alan Paton novel. Cinematographer Paul Gilpin. Editor David Heitner. Costumes Ruy Filipe. Music John Barry. Production designer David Barkham. Art director Roland Hunter. Set decorator Paul Weathered. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330.