A scrumptious bit of Victoriana to make you cry

The Man

ME and my phantoms: Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), alongside Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) and other fantasy characters from A Christmas Carol. Photograph courtesy http://www.wlrfm.com

PICTURE THE VISUAL clichés of Victorian England with all its beautiful costumes, complicated pathways and wooden buildings. While you’re doing this, don’t forget to add in its dire poverty, abject filth and propensity toward child labour. It’s a complicated series of images which this filmic team, headed by Bharat Nalluri present you with: the back story to Charles Dickens’s 1843 runaway classic, A Christmas Carol. In The Man Who Invented Christmas you get so much more than just the story. It’s a delicious piece of film that brings to life all the timeless Dickensian characters in this happy/sad/shameful tale of society of the time, through the medium of a curmudgeon and four ghouls.

It also articulates the messy business of writing fiction under deadline with complicated family manoevres and unrelenting family responsibilities in the background. Featuring some totally fabulous cameo performances to look out for – including the always delightful Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech and wonderful Miriam Margolyes as the Dickens’ chief cook and bottle-washer, Mrs Fisk – the work is entertaining and developed with a perspicuity that will keep you focused.

It takes you through the agony of Dickens’s previous critical and commercial flops – including Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes – his everpresent financial troubles and his personal history. You get to meet more than just the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: you get a scary peek into the nature of debtors’ prison and the realities of Victorian work houses — institutions in London of the time — as well as a complex father/son pathology and an adoring grandfather with a sense of magic and a necromancer’s hat (Jonathan Pryce).

Even if you do not know the original tale, you’re taken through the rollercoaster of London in the early 1800s, and exposed to everything from maggots in biscuits to a caged crow named Grip. Christopher Plummer is completely superb in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and the popping up of fictional characters in the mind’s eye of Dickens as he unravels what turns out to be amongst the greatest stories of all times, is handled with filmic wisdom and wit.

The only palpable flaw in this work which considers Dickens as a full blown individual with flaws and passions, moods and an ability to become angry but also an ability to forgive, is the casting of the Dickens couple – Charles (played by Dan Stevens) and Kate (played by Morfydd Clark). And the problem here is that they’re just too physically perfect, which lends a tone of insufferable blandness to the lynchpin in the tale. Indeed, you keep having to remind yourself that this blue-eyed young man is actually meant to be Charles Dickens, and you come away thinking of him as a performer rather than as textured a character as the rest of the cast.

Remember, that the year is 1843. Dickens would have been 31 at the time. He died at the age of 58. By this time in his life, he’d suffered the indignities of poverty and rejection and was immensely prolific. And when you find yourself looking at this pretty young man and thinking about how blue his eyes are rather than the grit and substance of the character, something seems wrong.

Similarly, Kate. She had a total of 10 children with Dickens, and divorced him after 20 years of marriage. We meet her when she’s pregnant with number five. She looks much too young and flawless for a woman living the fairly unhappy and complicated life she had.

But the rambunctiousness of the tale allows you to forget this flaw as you recognise caveats from the original text and get taken through the ups and downs of Christmas in a time of want and need, miserliness and financial disparity. More than anything, the work under scrutiny is a slice of Victorian life and the film offers insights into all of the social and political, economic and historical interstices. It’s delicious.

  • The Man Who Invented Christmas is directed by Bharat Nalluri and is performed by Patrick Ball, Valeria Bandino, Annette Badland, Desmond Bird,  Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, Jasper Hughes Cotter, Sean Duggan, Justin Edwards, Cosimo Fusco, Degnan Geraghty, Séamus Hanly, Derek Hannay, John Henshaw, Eddie Jackson, Miles Jupp, Miriam Margolyes, Kevin McCormack, Ian McNeice, David McSavage, Anna Murphy, Bill Paterson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Mark Quigley, Ger Ryan, Mark Schrier, Cameron Simpson, Donna Marie Sludds, Ely Solan, Dan Stevens, Donald Sumpter, Ava May Taylor, Rosin Whelan and Aidan Wylde. It is written by Susan Coyne based on the book by Les Standiford. Produced by Niv Fichman, Vadim Jean, Robert Mickelson, Susan Mullen and Ian Sharples, it features creative input by Mychael Danna (music), Ben Smithard (cinematography), Stephen O’Connell and Jamie Pearson (editing), Amy Hubbard (casting), Paki Smith (production design), Julie Ochipinti (set), and Leonie Prendergast (costumes). Release date: December 15 2017.
  • There are currently three productions dealing with the Dickens classic: this film, A Seussified Christmas Carol, directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here.
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Two men and a long road home

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IT’S going to be a long drive: Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) alongside the Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

OCCASIONALLY, A FILM crosses your awareness that makes you remember why films exist in this world. Nick Hamm’s The Journey is unequivocally one of those productions that celebrates the value of beautiful storytelling and the impeccable characterisation of historical figures, while it relentlessly keeps you utterly transfixed in a what-if scenario that blends political history with a foray into human values. It’s the kind of film that will suck you in, body and soul, and one that you will feel bereft when it reaches closure. And the pinnacle of its brilliance is its fictional premise, rather than its reconstruction of period, politics or the wide world.

Northern Ireland was one of the world’s most virulent hot spots since 1968, seething around the schism between Protestant and Catholic values, as it festered over the constitutional status of the area in the United Kingdom and the eruptions of ethno-nationality which saw the deaths of many innocent people in 30 years of unmitigated tit-for-tat violent recriminations. The Reverend Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) was the firebrand Protestant clergyman who became the face of hardline unionism. Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) was his arch rival. Republican champion of the IRA, he was considered an arch-terrorist – depending, of course, on where you sit as you read history.

In 2007, these two men did the unthinkable: They came to terms with their differences and put an end to the internecine violence in the region. What was it that enabled these two sworn enemies, on the cusp of great, righteous anger, to suddenly see eye to eye and to shake hands?  The history books will tell you one thing. They speak of time and cogitation, much renegotiation and hard work.

Director Nick Hamm, looks at this conundrum from a human perspective. Take two men. Leaders and important figures, by all accounts. Strip them of their lackeys and supporters. Frighten them a little in a road with detours and with no clear recourse to help. Pare them down to their basic humanity, and something else can happen.

And of course this is not Hamm casting aspersions at the facts of history. And of course this is not a real-fire solution to intractable politics in the world. The work, since its UK release in 2016, stands amidst a furore of critical opinion, some of which angrily declares that Hamm is hurting history for future generations. It’s a curious concern which reflects more on the success of the credibility of this piece of cinema than on the argument: if this critical position held sway, all fiction that rests lightly or heavily on fact would be rubbished.

Having said that, and as you find yourself magnetised to the premises of the tale, you get to empathise with both men. They’re in a car on the way to Belfast. The weather is wretched and it is the eve of Paisley’s golden wedding anniversary celebrations. He has to make his flight in time. You know how it will end – the proverbial book-ends of the story are firmly and unapologetically in place. But it’s what happens between point A and point B that is the central kernel to the work.

Like the play, Freud’s Last Session, this piece places emphasis on content as well as context and the words matter as much as the performances. Spall – who you may have last seen in the film Mr Turner – reflects the immovability of a man nearing the end of his life. He offers such a beautiful understanding of the persona and physical idiosyncrasies of Paisley that you cannot stop looking at him. The sculptural quality of his head is given emphasis and it sits with irrevocable nobility on his shoulders, which are more often than not hunched away from his travelling partner.

Meaney’s McGuinness is a fantastic visual, intellectual and human foil to Paisley and his vanities: he’s a bit of a jokester, but one firmly focused on his values. He’s more ordinary to behold, smiles more easily, but is no less tough a companion, with a fervent and focused understanding of the fight for freedom central to the ethos of him and his followers .

It’s a tale of attempted manipulation – featuring a very cleverly primed driver in quiet communication with MI5 Harry Patterson (John Hurt), but one in which the universe prevails. Things go wrong. And the two icons reach crisis in a remote forest covered in a forgiving layer of moss, in the presence of a godforsaken church and a dying deer.

It’s a story that resonates with the blood of innocent lives that gets shed in the name of ideology and power. It’s one about the seductive temptation and the possibility of power that the ego is prone to. It’s about an understanding of the Anti-Christ and a reflection of the 10 IRA hunger strikers who died in the 1980s. It’s also about the beauty of the Scottish landscape and the nuance of Irish dialect, of ancient graveyards and stained glass windows paying testament to the agony of martyrs. Above all, it’s a crisp and refined piece of storytelling that will not let you down. It will make you laugh and weep, it will stay with you for good.

  • The Journey is directed by Nick Hamm and features Ian Beattie, Frank Cannon, Stewart David Hawthorne, Freddie Highmore, Michael Hooley, John Hurt, Mark Lambert, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Colm Meaney, Aaron Rolph, Kristy Robinson, Timothy Spall, Toby Stephens, Barry Ward and John Wark. It is written by Colin Bateman and features creative input by Stephen Warbeck (music), Greg Gardiner (cinematography), Chris Gill (editing), Olivia Scott-Webb (casting), David Craig (production) and Suzi Battersby, Chris Lyons and Polly McKay (makeup). Release date: October 26 2017.

 

One whale and a whole school of red herrings

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I am calling you. The Whale Caller (Sello Maake ka-Ncube). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

IT WAS TOO easy: Just one quick glance at the poster and title of this movie got you booking your tickets: The Whale Caller? A South African director? Ah, it must be a celebration of the surreal poetry of Hermanus, you declared to yourself, a grin on your lips as you handed your money over. Hermanus, a 90-minute drive from Cape Town is one of those quaintly beautiful places in South Africa that is resplendent with landscapes and burgeoning tourist culture; in its suburbs, it is very rich and very poor, simultaneously. And it has old colonial churches who baptise their congregants on the beach. And it also boasts whales who visit the shore seasonally.

But the truth is, this film should have been called something like “Saluni: the woman with a penchant for the bottle”, but that wouldn’t have made you buy tickets, would it? The character in question, portrayed by Amrain Ismail-Essop is jarringly and crudely over-acted. She’s a mess: she drinks too much, she loses herself too easily, and she embarrasses herself in public all the time. She’s also a paper cut out in terms of her character development, but she is made to dominate the whole story in such a way that her presence destroys any potential for poetry.

Amongst other things, she chases and catches the Whale Caller, played by Sello Maake ka Ncube. He’s a quiet bloke who lives in a rustic little blue wooden cabin with a startling orange deckchair on the outside, an image which is easily the film’s visual pinnacle. And this Whale Caller, while he does have a tendency to stare into the blue yonder often, enjoys a passionate obsession with the whales of the district. He even has a very special horn that he blows and a uniform to go with it.

In a sense, this yarn gives you to understand why quiet men shrink from shrill loud women – or why they should. The relationship, utterly devoid of electricity is forced and doomed before it begins and it unfolds, characterised by lice and wine, fear of darkness, and blindness, and above all, manipulation. In short, it’s grubby all the way through. And empathy is never developed on the side of Saluni.

While the original idea of Zakes Mda’s which sees a man’s love tossed between that of a woman and that of a whale, is rather majestic and beautiful in the values of magic realism it offers, it really doesn’t work here. The tale is wound around the Coloured community of the district and it is punctured with a whole rash of red herrings that go nowhere – an issue of homophobia is mentioned but dropped. Saluni goes blind and then is healed miraculously and we don’t understand why. They’re characters with pasts that are never alluded to. There’s a graphic section intimating a dream of the Whale Caller’s which is embarrassingly amateur and oh, the list goes on…

And then there’s the children. In a whole development of this tale, twin girls of about 11-years-old are discovered by Saluni. They live in a disused building with their parents. And they can sing. There follows a very uncomfortable friendship between these children and Saluni which rapidly finds the girls in the bath and Saluni being offered red wine by way of payment if she looks after them. Weirder things can happen, in this day and age. Or can they?

The main reason you should see this film, however, transpires toward the end of a very turgid series of horrid events, and brings the whale itself into the frame. She – the Whale Caller calls her Sharisha – is simply magnificent and the struggle she faces in getting back into deeper waters is epic. As you sit there watching this unfold, the tears running down your face, you almost forgive the shrillness of Saluni; you can almost look away from her moth-eaten fur coat and her foolish dreams of ‘becoming a star’.

There’s a moment of victory when you might cast your mind back to 1990 and a magnificent moment of abstract play of choreography and photography in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, but alas, it is another opportunity lost and ka-Ncube’s whoops of gladness are embarrassing and juvenile and do not do his apparent life long love for this grand mammal dignified justice.

There’s an ingot of possibility in this story, fuelled as it is with a lovely soundtrack composed by Pops Mohamed, but this possibility is whipped away from you, before you have a chance to grasp it. And yes, there’s the landscapes, but the cinematography too is stripped of nuance and is so harsh and bright, sometimes you can’t bear to look.

  • The Whale Caller is directed by Zola Maseko and features a cast headed by Amrain Ismail-Essop and Sello Maake Ka-Ncube. It is written by Zola Maseko and Zakes Mda based on the eponymous book by Zakes Mda. Produced by Zola Maseka and Dylan Voogt, it features creative input by Pops Mohamed (music), Miles Goodall (cinematography), Nic Goodwin (editing), Charlotte Buys (sound), and Dominique Pellissier, Monique Ray and George Webster (visual effects). Release date: October 13 2017.

 

How to face the demons in your belly

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THAT’S it? Lori (Sadie Sink), Brian (Charlie Shotwell), Rex (Woody Harrelson), Jeannette (Ella Anderson), Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Maureen (Shree Crooks) survey the new house in Welch, West Virginia. Photograph courtesy Lionsgate.

IF YOU READ the blurb put out by Ster Kinekor for Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle, you may go into the movie theatre expecting to be uplifted by a kind of clichéd rags to riches yarn about reaching for one’s dreams. It is so much more and so much less than this.

Based on the life story of New York Times journalist, Jeannette Walls, this profoundly tough tale of so-called hillbillies in West Virginia, and utter, grotesque poverty is about the horror of shame and the love of a parent and it is incredibly difficult to watch, but more difficult to take the decision to walk out. From the get go, you are assailed with horrendous scenarios that involve an amateur painter not having the inclination to feed her child, which results in utter catastrophe. And things ricochet in a range of horrifying and deeply disappointing directions – disappointing for the children, that is – after that.

But more than a tale about the child in question – Jeannette Walls – played with a great deal of adult nuance by child performer Ella Anderson, and more than an engagement with what has become something of a blanket term ‘dysfunctionality’, the story opens the net wide to the complicated rough and tumble that comes of raising children in the shadow of abuse without the constraints of formal education. It’s not a story of abuse, in the conventional sense, though there are mysteries and red herrings when it comes to things that go on behind closed doors, and is premised on the way in which young children can recognise and engage with deep moral conflict.

Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) is a man with instinctive knowledge. We don’t know if he has been educated, but we discover that he comes of a place of abject degradation. The son of an uncompromisingly horrendous woman named Erma (Robin Bartlett), he has glorious extravagant dreams to build a house made of glass. He’s married to an amateur hobbyist of a painter called Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), and together they have four beautiful children. And think dirty mattresses and hand-me-down clothes, think littlies going to bed with dirty feet, snotty noses and empty stomachs; think power shifting between a daddy and his little girl in ways that force the child into the adult’s proverbial shoes, and you have the general, harrowing picture.

But as the foundation of the eponymous Glass Castle, dug by the children with much glee, turn into a repository for domestic rubbish, and as Rex’s propensity to drink fills up his soul and empties the fridge, you realise this is not a tale about fulfilling dreams at all. It’s one that averts cliché in a sophisticated and complex way. And it’s about one that engages with the demons in the belly and celebrates a man who is an unhero. Creating detours through and around Joseph Campbell’s classic structure of the hero myth, the tale is not even a cautionary one – as it reaches closure, you realise the historical depth it embraces, and the sense of a truth without a moral embraced in obviousness that it offers.

And yes, the rags to riches element features, seeing Jeannette (Brie Larson plays her, as an adult) grow into a sophisticated young woman, having constructed a life for herself out of the ruins she’s left with. Journalism becomes her way out of the morass of her childhood, but there are heavy prices she pays along the way. She’s appropriately highly finished in her sense of physical appearance, a sharp tune from the ‘adventurous’ values with which she had been raised.

Beautifully directed, with narrative transitions that segue with wisdom and sensitivity, the work turns in narrative circles and the associations are potent and deeply satisfying to watch. You do, however, emerge from this complicated tale of victory and loss with a troubled heart and a tear-driven face.

  • The Glass Castle is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and performed by Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Max Greenfield, Josh Caras, Charlie Shotwell, Iain Armitage, Sarah Snook, Sadie Sink, Olivia Kate Rice, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Shree Crooks, Eden Grace Redfield, Robin Bartlett, Joe Pingue, A J Henderson, Dominic Bogart, Chris Gillett, Tessa Mossey, Brenda Kamino, Vlasta Vrana, Andrew Shaver, Sandra Flores, Francesca Barcenas, Bianca Bellange, Izabel Kerr, Darrin Baker, Kyper Harper, Sarah Camacho, Alanna Bale, Ray Adams, John Mullins, Sabrina Campilii and Ross Partridge, and a support cast including Brian, Jeannette, Lori, Rex and Rose Mary Walls. It is written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham based on the book by Jeannette Walls and is designed by Joel P West (music), Brett Pawlak (cinematography), Ronna Kress (casting), Sharon Seymour (production), Joy Cretton and Mirren Gordon-Crozier (costumes). Release date: September 1 2017.

 

Behold, the Queen: unguarded

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ALL that I survey is mine: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), her new best friend. Photograph courtesy BBC.com

SHE WAS SO many things. The portraits of her attest to her physical fierceness. An unbeautiful woman, Queen Victoria was pivotal to a stylistic era that was as much about decorum as it was about modesty. Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is a magnificently crafted work about her friendship with a young Muslim man in the years leading up to her death.  Unequivocally, it is everything that an historical drama of this nature should be. And topped with Judi Dench’s immaculate portrayal of Victoria herself, the work is at once deeply evolved with impeccable attention to detail, as it is funny and tragic, historically viable and educational.

Sparing no no punches in reflecting on the queen of the British empire and by default the empress of India as a woman who bears the brunt of her station with complexity and unease, the work is replete with a great sense of textural authority. Queen Victoria is not politically savvy but is subject to the ceremonies and protocol of her context with a mix of boredom and physical discomfort. The work considers her, above all, as a woman, a mother of nine, who was widowed more than 30 years ago, one struggling with obesity and gynaecological issues who is forced by dint of birth to engage in a set of boring imperatives which are about keeping up appearances to the nth degree.

Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) on the reputation of a beautiful carpet, with the promise of a mango that is a little like an orange and a bit like a peach, and magic knocks audaciously on the door of this dour old woman. It’s the kind of magic she doesn’t want to lose: it makes her laugh. It enables her to rediscover her humanity in a world where everyone adulates her, but no one loves her.

It’s a beautiful if sometimes insanely farcical tale that looks at the foreignness of culture through fresh eyes. We see the barbarism of British cuisine through the perceptions of Abdul’s countryman Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), and we see the sheer wonder of Abdul’s life as a prison administrator, the poetry he is heir to and the traditions that are central to his existence, through Victoria’s eyes. We’re also confronted with the complex and grim monolith of colonial mentality that runs as a backdrop to the tale.

With a mad little vignette which sees a bewigged Simon Callow in the role of Puccini, so much detail is central to the film’s focus. Eddie Izzard deliciously plays the irascible 57-year-old ‘Bertie’, Victoria’s eldest son who was crowned King Edward VII after her demise in 1901.

The cinematography, exploiting the utter symmetry of the Victorian lifestyle, to say nothing of the dizzying sense of detail which touches everything from British culinary ritual to the Taj Mahal itself is completely breathtaking, and the music, blending bagpipes with sitars, is as diverse and rich. This is the kind of film that will have you laughing and weeping and returning home to learn more about royal ascendancy and histories.

  • Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears and performed by Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder, Trevor Fox, Joe Caffrey, John Stahl, Tim McMullan, Jonathan Harden, John Rowe, Benjamin Haigh, Sandy Grierson, Alaistair Pether, Sally Jokhan, Charlie Stewart, Willie Cochrane, Jonathan Mayer, Mitel Purohit, Sam Kenyon, Samuel Stefan and a supporting cast. It is produced by Tim Bevan and written by Lee Hall based on the book by Shrabani Basu. It was designed by Thomas Newman (music), Danny Cohen (cinematography), Consolata Boyle (costumes) and Alan MacDonald (production). Release date in South Africa: September 29 2017.

Veld foundling

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GOD doesn’t make mistakes: Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels), with their child, Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). Photograph courtesy kyknet.

WHAT ARE YOU, effectively, if you do not fit the basic identifiers of the people all around you? This question comes under the sensitive but probing and compelling loupe of newly released Afrikaans (with English subtitles) film, Vaselinetjie.

Like British director Alan Bleasdale’s mini-series that interpreted Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1999), the work begins with a deeply distressed, heavily pregnant young woman on a clear mission of self-destruction, in a veld hostile to her, under an unsympathetic moon . By daybreak, we hear the cries of the baby, who clearly understood the urgency of the situation and snatched at life, while it could.

Thus begins a simply magnificently crafted piece of South African narrative, which places a white child in a Coloured context: the amorphous mixed race community which is historically too black to be considered white, and too white to be considered black, but has a cultural identity which is potent with its sense of self.

And it is here where you meet the skinny and frightened and somewhat fierce 11-year-old Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). It’s 1995. She’s being raised by Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels) in a district of South Africa, distinguished by its dusty streets and basic poverty. She’s also being teased within a millimetre of her sense of belonging by the other children. She’s everything they are, in terms of her accent and context. She’s also everything they’re not. And they are merciless.

Enter social welfare. And a new chapter in Vaselinetjie’s life, where she gets to experience other children. White children. It is here, in an orphanage – explained to her 11-year-old self as a boarding school – in Johannesburg, where she cuts her teeth as a person with convictions, albeit one with devils. She’s not alone. It’s an orphanage, after all, and her peers have their own demons, some more explicit than hers. It is here where she learns the rules of many games, both inside and outside of the school’s environment, whether it be in learning to slip under the radar of the avuncular house mother Tannie Snorre (Karin van der Laag), or smoking with the boys in the school’s interstices. It is also here where she grows into a young woman (Marguerite van Eeden), and discovers love and heartbreak.

This is no soppy love story though, and while it ends with a satisfying denouement, the characters are put through the proverbial wringer in terms of their need to grapple with the conflict of where they fit in. Themes dovetail and resonate in circles and cycles, and conjoined with breathtakingly fine cinematography, make you feel able to smell the atmosphere in the red brick orphanage with its peeling paintwork and high ceilings, a decaying testament to an earlier era, as you’re able to taste the dust of the Coloured township and feel the unrelenting heat of its climate.

When you think of a film of this nature, you may well consider works such as Irish film maker Peter Mullan’s Magdalene Sisters (2002), or even Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose, in which a mass of characters interface to form a social texture. This is achieved with finesse and aplomb in Vaselinetjie: the orphanage is rich with gemstones of stories within stories, character vignettes that are haunting yet tiny, and the creative team behind this film doesn’t stint on this, creating characters such as Killer (Anchen du Plessis and Elzet Nel), who carries her grief with great care; Pizzaface (Daniah de Villiers and Elani Dekker), the daughter of an ‘escort’; and Texan (Ashley Hawla and Arno Greeff), a boy with secrets, shame and fury. Not to forget Albie (Rowan-Raine Pretorius and Marise Loots), a troubled little girl who teeters between her broken plastic doll and chess mastery.

There are moments of woodenness in van Eeden’s portrayal, however, causing the older Vaselinetjie to lose some of that fierce credibility. Your eye is allowed to digress from her more often than it should. This doesn’t, however, hurt the memorable and well honed fabric of the tale.

  • Vaselinetjie is written by Corné van Rooyen and René van Rooyen and directed by Corné van Rooyen. It is designed by Ben Ludik (music), Adam Joshua Bentel (cinematography), Waldemar Coetsee (production), Nerine Pienaar (costumes), Wimari du Plessis, Claudia Hamman, Zeldene Simon and Gina Slingerland (make up) and Quinn Lubbe (visual effects). It is performed by Nicole Bond, Daniah De Villiers, Elani Dekker, Anchen du Plessis, Arno Greeff, Ashley Hawla, Marise Loots, David Mello, Zack Mtombeni, Elzet Nel, Rowan-Raine Pretorius, Melita Steyn, Royston Stoffels, Shaleen Surtie-Richards and Marguerite van Eeden, supported by Izel Bezuidenhout, Anton Dekker, Émil Haarhoff, Henk Hugo, Heidi Mollentze, Bradley Olivier, Jai’prakash Sewram, Dean Smith, Karin van der Laag, Wilbur Jansen van Rensburg and Drikus Volschenk. Release date: September 22, 2017.
  • See a comment on the contemporary relevance of this film by Geoff Sifrin in Taking Issue.

Death of a golden boy

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WASHING dishes: Lisa (Rolanda Marais), Dirk (Albert Pretorius), Hein (Ludwig Binge), Anya (Ilana Cillier) and Johnny (Roelof Storm) at play.

Sometimes you just know that a film will most likely not break box office records, not in this generation, at least, but that this market-centric prediction has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on its brilliance, its historical merit or its importance as a piece of research. Johnny is nie dood nie is a film of this nature. Featuring impeccable writing, an unforgettably sound understanding of the texture and anguish of the late 1980s in South Africa, and a speculum-like foray into the life of one of young Afrikaans culture’s most important icons, it’s an extraordinary project, but also a brave and essential film.

On one level it’s a loosely historical account of the last 15 years of the life of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel – born Ralph Rabie in 1960 – bringing in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the era, not to mention the looming terror of mandatory army service for young white males, the PTSD and the sense of utter impotence in the eye of apartheid’s evils. It’s a tale of love and betrayal, of defiance and Alice in Wonderland, and there are moments in which you can almost smell the ether of the period, criss-crossed as it is with the odour of dagga, cigarettes and sweat, in a socio-political nexus laced with ideals and fury.

On another level, it is an essay on the loss of a dear friend. Lise (Rolanda Marais), Anya (Ilana Cillier), Hein (Ludwig Binge) and Dirk (Albert Pretorius) get together to commiserate about the suicide of the one who was central to all of their lives. It’s 2002 and they’re young adults with responsibilities. The flashbacks to the 1980s and their late teens offer clear and troubled insight into the messed up state of South African society at the time, as they present the nub of the Voëlvry movement, a development of politically astute Afrikaans cabaret which set Afrikaans university students afire with a sense of possibility.

When first we meet the eponymous Johnny (Roelof Storm), he’s freshly fired from his job as a journalist, and cocks a snook at the country’s expectations of him with glee. With his platinum blond hairdo and his nimble wit and singing talent, Johnny is like a god. But he’s like a fallen god. He has secrets that will overpower you in their sense of choice, in the Catch-22 that embraced the lives of so many young men of that wretched, double-crossed era.

While the film doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, the light it casts on the era is penetrating, as it is poignant, well-researched and hard-hitting. With everything, from a delicious cameo of the late Barend de Wet, with hookah and existential solutions at hand, to a televised snippet which reflects Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys) chatting to Kerkorrel about life, the universe and music, as well as illustrations by John Tenniel on the walls, and Jan F E Celliers’s poem Dis Al on the window of a student dorm, the work is rich in detail, and unforgettable in texture.

Of the five central characters, it is Albert Pretorius’s nuanced sense of history and sadness that grips the film in an embrace which is haunting, delicate and simply beautiful. You understand implicitly that his Dirk, ultimately is a reflection of Dirk Uys who became the manager of Kerkorrel’s band, Gereformeerde Blues Band.

You have to sit to the very last moment of the film – even after the credits have scrolled up – for the music, however. The work is more focused on the horror and wildness of the times than the poetry of Kerkorrel and his contemporaries, including James Philips (who invented the alter ego Bernoldus Niemand), Koos Kombuis and others, but you must focus carefully. Snatches of Kerkorrel’s songs tie the work together like sinews and connective tissue. There’s a game the friends play in remembering lyrics, and a completely fabulous reconstruction of the iconic and utterly bizarre image that defines his record Eet Kreef  but you can rest assured, his magnificent ballads Hillbrow and In die Tronk are not forgotten.

  • Johnny is nie dood nie (2017) is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and stars Ludwig Binge, Ilana Cillier, Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius and Roelof Storm, based on the eponymous stage play by Malan Steyn. It is 106 minutes in length and is in Afrikaans with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor outlets nationwide on Friday May 5. Visit cinemanouveau.co.za and https://www.facebook.com/Johnnyisniedoodnie/?hc_ref=SEARCH for more details.