Boesman and Lena (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I feel guilty giving this movie a bad review, because it is such a sensitive treatment of such a serious subject, and was invested with so much love by the principals. But this isn't much of a movie, I'm sorry to say, despite good intentions. 

It does have an interesting history.

Director John Berry worked for Orson Welles back in the Mercury Theater days in the 1930's, including a stint as Orson's assistant director. He was blackballed during the McCarthyism days, during which he worked in Europe. When he returned to American in 1970, his first directing project was a successful stage version of "Boesman and Lena", a two-character play about apartheid in South Africa, starring James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee. Given his sentimental attachment to the play, it seems fitting that he should have brought it to the screen 30 years later, starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett, and perhaps just as fitting that he should have passed gently away while the film was in post-production. He was 82.

Unfortunately, the play doesn't really work as a movie. Not only is it really still a stage play, but it is essentially a one-act 82 minute play with a single set. There are only two differences between the play and the movie:


  1. The single set, which on stage was a recreation of a muddy riverbank, is now a real muddy riverbank.
  2. The history of the two characters is shown in some brief flashbacks in the film, whereas on stage they simply talked about the incidents. The flashbacks occupy a miniscule percentage of the film's running time.

When I say those are the only differences between the 1970 play and the 2000 movie, I'm not exaggerating. There isn't even an attempt to tone down the theatrical acting style for the more intimate demands of the camera. Nor is there any attempt to relocate the film into the present. It is still about apartheid in the 1960's.

Lena and Boesman are two fiftyish characters of mixed race ("browns" or "coloreds", in the South African nomenclature) who have been recently displaced from their shantytown home when their community was bulldozed to permit commercial development. They are left with no home, no family, no friends, no community, nothing but each other. And after 30 years together, they don't much care for each other's company. Boesman doesn't really want to speak, or even to listen to Lena, so she delivers many monologues to the four winds. 

Lena is so lonely, having recently lost her dog, which represented her only real companionship, that she decides to welcome a wandering Kaffir tribesman to their campfire, even though he is obviously elderly and dying and doesn't speak a word of any language they can understand. I guess that makes it a three person play, except the old geezer only mutters things that neither we no the other two characters can understand, so he's really a prop, not a character. In essence, he's a substitute for her dog.

Lena decides to sleep beside the geezer, and even pays Boesman her last two bottles of wine just to let the old fellow stay undisturbed. Lena is naturally disappointed to have paid so much for a companion who died during the night.

In the course of the play, they discuss the condition they are in now, what they once were, and what they have lost. They fight, reconcile, fight some more. The movie has a last reconciliation, as they walk away holding hands, to start the same cycle of wandering and bickering on another riverbank somewhere. I haven't read the play, but I'm led to believe it originally had a bleaker ending.

The whole project is very serious and meaningful, filled with good intentions, heartfelt social commentary, and good theatrical performances. Ultimately though, it is still really nothing more than a film of a two character play which was topical in 1970.

And it's a two character play in heavy dialect.

Angela Bassett probably has 65-70 minutes of virtual monologue in this show. Given her apparent state of near madness and her wounded patois, these speeches form a kind of mangled poetry. She's a terrific actress, consistently underrated in my opinion, and she does a great job, but the whole concept has limited appeal. Do you want to listed to a woman recite some mad poetry in a South African dialect for an hour? Here's your shot.

By the way, the play was filmed much earlier, in 1974, with the author playing the part of Boesman.

The Critics Vote

  • BBC 2/5

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.0.
  • With their dollars .. I'm pretty much the only person in the world who has seen this. Total box office $32,000. Opened on eight screens, dropped to one the next week.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C within its genre, because it is intelligent and well acted, but it is strictly for theater buffs or those studying the subject matter. 99.9% of you would hate it.

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