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Boesman & Lena

Starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett
Based on the play by Athol Fugard
Adapted and Directed by John Berry

IN SHORT: Strictly arthouse. [Not Rated. 88 minutes]

It doesn't take much brainpower to visualize what Athol Fugard's play looked like when it was first performed on the theatrical stage. Director John Berry's adaptation still has the feel of a stage play, with two principal actors tossing monologues at each other (most of the time) with occasional flashback inserts to illustrate descriptions of "when times were better". This means we get told a lot of information, rather than seeing it play out onscreen, which works fine in the confines of a theater. On a big screen, a wide open mudflat setting steals the emotional intimacy that a closed space provides. Such is the case with Berry's last work, completed mere days after his death in November 1999.

Times were better for Boesman (Danny Glover) and Lena (Angela Bassett) once upon a time a very long time before the movie, set in apartheid South Africa, begins. They lived in a modest house. He had a job (though the film is unspecific. Based on location, we'd guess some kind of farmer). They had a child. For reasons unspecified, the child died. For other reasons unspecified, all they had was taken from them. As we meet Boesman and Lena, they're on the road, having been evicted from a shantytown for the homeless, and are searching out a new place to settle. All they have is carried on Boesman's back or in a crate balanced on Lena's head. They've been wandering so long that Lena is pressed to keep all their settlements, in all the various towns, in proper order. In her mind, "it's all mixed up again".

We should point out that the reason we are making suppositions above is that the South African accent is a pretty thick thing. We've known two South Africans in our lifetime, and the voices of Bassett and Glover are dead on. With occasional Afrikaner words tossed into the dialog mix, it's entirely possible that questions we had were answered. We just couldn't understand it.

The pair collect and recycle bottles for meager cash. Boesman maintains a bit of humor while Lena rambles but, once they've found a new place to camp, the balance between the pair changes when Lena befriends an old man, a tribal South African who speaks neither English nor Afrikaner. Boesman reacts angrily to this, displaying an obvious contempt for the full-blooded native. Herein lies the point of the story, which I'll pass on from the press notes because there's no way you're going to get it clearly from the film: Boesman and Lena are "mixed blood" South Africans. That put them higher up on the economic spectrum -- in the brief flashback they appear to be comfortable if not prosperous -- and this taste of the good life is what keeps them able to endure. The native (Willie Jonah), whose name we never learn, has never had that taste. Knowing the end is near, he has wandered off into the wilderness to die.

That's an assumption on our part. We've decided not to reveal the more obvious details of their relationship because those rely on the acting skills of Ms. Bassett and Mr. Glover, both of whom know a thing or two about what they're doing. Those that spend more time in the arthouses than we do may be able to derive more satisfaction from the performances than we did. This movie tells instead of shows. Even at a slim 88 minutes, there's a lot of verbiage to wade through. Better conceived and written flashbacks, and a bigger budget perhaps, could have made the emotional connections clearer. What we see are two people who alternately scream at each other. Or don't. That is not compelling viewing.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Boesman & Lena, he would have paid...


Mid-week rental level, and then again only if you prefer arthouse faire.

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