The Robben re­demp­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews - DON­ALD CLARKE

GOOD­BYE BAFANA Di­rected by Bille Au­gust. Star­ring Joseph Fi­ennes, Den­nis Hays­bert, Diane Kruger, Shiloh Henderson, Adrian Gal­ley, Pa­trick Lys­ter 15A cert, lim­ited re­lease, 140 min

YET an­other well-mean­ing Euro­pean lib­eral – one whose stu­dent days were, per­haps, taken up with de­mand­ing an end to apartheid – has set out for Africa to tell us a story of the white man’s bur­den. This time round its Bille Au­gust, di­rec­tor of Pelle the Con­queror, and his sub­ject is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Nelson Man­dela and one of his jail­ers. Since this de­cent, wor­thy film went into pro­duc­tion, there has been a steady swelling of gos­sip to the ef­fect that James Gre­gory, the Robben Is­land warder who worked with Man­dela for close to 30 years, greatly ex­ag­ger­ated the friend­ship be­tween him­self and the ANC leader. This, per­haps, ex­plains why Au­gust has cho­sen to fo­cus on Gre­gory’s story and has al­lowed Man­dela to sink into the back­ground some­what.

Den­nis Hays­bert, best known as the Pres­i­dent in 24, ends up with pre­cious lit­tle to do. Con­sis­tently mel­low and even-tem­pered, his dig­ni­fied Man­dela, whose snip­pets of sage ad­vice help turn Gre­gory from racism, comes across like a big­ger, bolder, less green Yoda. This is the jailer’s story, not the revo­lu­tion­ary’s.

Still, for all the film’s com­pro­mises, it re­mains a sur­pris­ingly touch­ing piece of work. Joseph Fi­ennes, play­ing an or­di­nary man, se­lected to spy on Man­dela be­cause he knows the Xhosa lan­guage, does a good job of tele­graph­ing the in­ter­nal shifts and con­flicts that edge him to­wards an un­der­stand­ing of the in­jus­tices vis­ited upon the black ma­jor­ity. As his (let’s say fic­tional) char­ac­ter be­gins to warm to the cap­tive and al­lows him favours, the pic­ture takes on the qual­ity of a less so­phis­ti­cated, but still in­volv­ing, cousin of The Lives of Oth­ers.

Men­tion should also be made of the skil­ful art de­sign and lo­ca­tion work, which ef­fec­tively con­veys the odd col­li­sion of African ex­oti­cism and painfully drab con­form­ity that char­ac­terised the white bits of this odd coun­try in its grim years. It looks like con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous Por­ta­d­own, but with bet­ter weather.

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