Good intentions are wonderful things, but alone they’re not enough to make an effective film. “In My Country,” an anti-apartheid drama set against the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee established under Nelson Mandela to bring a measure of domestic peace to South Africa following decades of brutal and repressive government, has the noble ambition of helping westerners to understand the African concept of “ubuntu,” or justice that involves confession, forgiveness and a restoration of amity rather than mere retribution. And in the periodic scenes involving recreations of actual testimony (though never the remembered incidents themselves, perhaps mercifully), it achieves some real power, even if the acting is occasionally a bit amateurish and the direction by veteran John Boorman sometimes allows the melodramatic aspects to get out of hand.
But what mostly undermines the picture is the old mistake of dramatizing the story from a western perspective, so that the black African experience isn’t directly felt, but is instead filtered through the eyes of outsiders, and thereby weakened in the telling. The technique is the same that Richard Attenborough used in “Cry Freedom” back in 1987, and it’s no more successful now, especially after “Hotel Rwanda” demonstrated that it’s completely unnecessary. In fact, we’re given not a single surrogate but two of them–Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a Washington Post reporter who comes to cover the hearings, and whose natural tendency to demand revenge rather than absolution is gradually replaced by an appreciation of “ubuntu,” and Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), an Afrikaner poetess of progressive beliefs who’s reporting on the event for a radio station and comes to realize the depth of the evil of the old regime, especially when it hits very close to home. It isn’t that Jackson and Binoche don’t give solid performances, with the former using his gruff charm to good advantage and the latter managing a respectable accent as well as contending as well as possible with the character’s very high-pitched emotions (although in one major scene she’s forced to go so far over-the-top that one actually feels embarrassed for her). But in playing a romantic card between the two, who are both married, Ann Peacock’s script uses a contrivance that doesn’t do the subject justice, transferring the passion that should concentrate on the agony of a people to a passion between two individuals: it’s like transposing the old Tracy-Hepburn formula, in which bickering (this time about very important issues of race and justice) is eventually replaced by attraction and involvement, into narrative whose seriousness should preclude that sort of subplot. (And adding a throwaway moment in which Anna’s sophisticated mother admits that she too once strayed from her matrimonial commitments cheapens it further.) The periodic insertion of excerpts that Whitfield conducts with an unreconstructed military man (Brendan Gleeson) responsible for numerous atrocities under apartheid, meant to offer a glimpse into the mindset that might lead to such horrors, is another decision that fails: by snipping Gleeson’s turn (quite good, in his usual ferocious way) into bits and pieces, it actually dilutes the impact. One can also question two subplots that lead up to unsurprising last-minute revelations, one concerning Dumi Mkhalipi (Menzi “Ngubs” Ngubane), Whitfield’s canny African guide, and the other centering on Anna’s beloved brother Boetie (Langley Kirkwood), who, as it turns out, is keeping a very ugly secret from his sister. In both cases, the truth has been telegraphed so far in advance that most viewers will have guessed it far in advance.
It’s a pity that “In My Country” makes so many bad choices in telling its story, for the South African Truth and Reconciliation process was truly inspiring, and also influential, serving as a model for other regions trying to overcome the horrors of their past; and the moments that actually concentrate on the hearings in Boorman’s film are affecting, despite the sometimes uncertain staging. Unfortunately, they’re too few, and the message they convey is vitiated by the extraneous matters with which the writer and director have elected to surround them. The resultant film is unquestionably sincere, but it doesn’t do the subject justice in either the African or the western sense of the phrase.