Cry, The Beloved Country

on December 15, 1995 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
   Screened at Toronto. The first feature to be produced in newly democratic South Africa is a grand-scale adaptation of Alan Paton's classic novel about a black priest (James Earl Jones) and a white landowner (Richard Harris) brought together in 1946 by the murder of the latter's son. Well-meaning in the "Gandhi" mode, this drama is pat and contrived. David Lean might have pulled some resonance from Paton's straightahead writing, but director Darrell James Roodt is not an imaginative filmmaker. John Barry's syrupy score serves only to underline the movie's manipulations.
   Casting Jones as the naive man of God overwhelmed by tragedy and the modern world is a mistake; he has too much inner strength to be persuasive in the role. Harris fares better in his poignant turn as the complacent landowner who rethinks his prejudices when his idealistic child dies, and he begins to understand his son's impassionated criticism of the country's apartheid regime. But "Cry, the Beloved Country" is overburdened by symbolism attached to most of its characters, and its few shaded characters notably Charles Dutton in an all-too-brief appearance as Jones' brother, an opportunistic black-rights politician who's willing to sacrifice his nephew to save his own son - aren't allowed enough scope to give the film the complexity it deserves.
   Part of the problem is the overly reverent tone toward Paton's book, which is South Africa's equivalent of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The movie announces it is a class act with every moment of emotional drama and pathos. Roodt and scripter Ronald Harwood never allow "Cry, the Beloved Country" to simply go for the jugular, which is what the inherently powerful material demands. Shown at Toronto as a workprint, the movie never misfires in the manner of Roodt's 1992 anti-apartheid musical "Sarafina!" But in the end it's undone by its high taste.    Starring James Earl Jones, Richard Harris and Charles S. Dutton. Directed by Darrell James Roodt. Written by Ronald Harwood. Produced by Anant Singh. A Miramax release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 112 min.
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