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'In My Country': Unjustifiable

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page WE45

WHAT DO YOU say about a dramatically woeful movie whose heart and politics are in the right place? Well, you sigh as you turn your thumb downward.

"In My Country" tests that issue sorely. Its subject is the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa and, specifically, the 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which were convened by Nelson Mandela's government to bring together the executors of institutionalized racism and their victims and families. The perpetrators, with some exceptions, could be granted amnesty if they exercised full and remorseful candor. Almost 1,200 such people were allowed to go free by this remarkably visionary process.

Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Langston (Samuel L. Jackson) disagree over apartheid in 1995 South Africa in "In My Country." (Karen "blid" Alsbirk -- Sony Pictures Classics)

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But in their desire to humanize the big story, director John Boorman and screenwriter Ann Peacock (who adapted Antjie Krog's nonfiction book, "Country of My Skull") have resorted to groan-inducing cliches and clunky narrative. They make everything unbearably schematic. That the movie is a flop is bad enough. That it was directed by Boorman makes it even worse. This is the filmmaker, after all, who gave us "Point Blank," "Leo the Last," "Deliverance," "Hope and Glory" and "The General." What was he thinking? What was anyone thinking?

Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a Washington Post reporter who has come to South Africa to cover the hearings, is loaded for bear with political opinion. Disgusted by apartheid, he believes in no quarter for white South Africans. He meets Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), a white South African poet who is also there to cover the ongoing event.

She's a married Afrikaner whose family believes that whites have been unfairly treated since the dissolution of apartheid. She's also blissfully unaware of the atrocities that occurred during the regime and expresses deep love for her homeland. Langston thinks apartheid supporters should be executed in the dead of night and doesn't take her patriotism very seriously.

In keeping with the cheesiest of formula romances, Langston and Anna start off on the wrong foot, arguing about which course the country should take. They drink together. They argue some more. And then they continue finding excuses to get together until, well, if you're stumped about where this heated relationship goes, maybe you should see the movie.

The best conflict in the movie occurs between Langston and Col. De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), an Afrikaner former police chief allegedly responsible for killing 60 black prisoners. Gleeson, a brilliant performer, shows us the face of evil but with the mitigating circumstances of humanity. But his three-dimensionality is jarring; at odds with the wooden movie around him.

Binoche's French-accented attempt to sound like an Afrikaner would surely provoke hysterics in theater aisles from Cape Town to Johannesburg. And for the record, Langston Whitfield is the least credible Washington Post reporter to appear on-screen in memory. (And yes, that includes Denzel Washington's Gray Grantham in "The Pelican Brief.") If Langston really worked for The Post, his professional days would be numbered for his overbearing behavior and editorially inappropriate questions at the hearings. And his illicit affair with Anna wouldn't help. But in Hollywood, there is no Truth and Reconciliation Commission for badly depicted characters. That's probably a good thing: Those hearings might never end.

IN MY COUNTRY (R, 104 minutes) -- Contains descriptions of atrocities and violence. At Cinema Arts Theatre, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Regal Gallery Place.

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