"In My Country" is a movie with an impeccable pedigree. Based on the acclaimed memoir "Country of My Skull" by the South African author Antjie Krog, adapted for the screen by an equally respected South African writer named Ann Peacock and the revered British director John Boorman ("Hope and Glory," "Deliverance"), this is a movie that, on paper at least, should have been a home run.
Instead, this romantic melodrama, set against the backdrop of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1996, doesn't even get to first base, reducing what was a profoundly important event to something almost trivial. It's an indication of how badly "In My Country" misfires that, at one point, a conflicted white journalist played by Juliette Binoche has the temerity to compare a brief sexual fling to the decades-long betrayal of apartheid.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a reporter who encounters Brendan Gleeson as a symbol of apartheid.
(Karen "Blid" Alsbirk -- Sony Pictures Classics)
But that's merely the culmination of a series of brief, appallingly simplistic vignettes that, rather than conveying the depth and complexity of South Africa's history and culture, distill it to the point of distortion. The story, of a white journalist who comes to uneasy terms with her Afrikaner heritage while covering the hearings and befriending a black colleague, never manages to convey convincingly either political history or personal catharsis. Viewers looking for an accurate account of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings (during which victims and perpetrators of apartheid came together to confront and, often, forgive) are directed to the award-winning 2000 documentary "Long Night's Journey Into Day" for a truly engrossing account of the commission's extraordinary work. For a fictionalized portrayal of recent events in Africa, one that doesn't sacrifice historical truth to the exigencies of narrative, mark your calendars for the video release of "Hotel Rwanda" in a couple of weeks.
"In My Country" opens with an exhilarating sense of promise, as a South African choir harmonizes on an achingly beautiful hymn while images of countryside play across the screen. But soon enough that grandeur is miniaturized, subsumed by the story of Anna Malan (Binoche), who confounds her family by sympathetically covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for a South African radio network. By her father's lights, the overthrow of apartheid means that he and his fellow whites will now be the target of black oppression; Anna, the family liberal, is more optimistic, believing that the "justice of peace and compassion" promised by the hearings will heal the racism and violence that have bloodied her country for decades.
While covering the first hearing, Anna meets Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a Washington Post reporter who reveals a surprising degree of confusion between American racial politics and the more nuanced tribal culture of Africa. It's no surprise that Anna and Langston eventually embark on an affair; their relationship, with its initial arguments and prickly misunderstandings, is as much an emblem of larger social issues as is nearly every scene and character in the movie.
For example, it's not enough for Peacock and Boorman to introduce a rapacious colonel named De Jager (Brendan Gleeson) to stand in for the most pathological depredations of Afrikaner violence; he has to live in a house whose walls are covered with the heads of the big-brown-eyed animals he has killed. It's not enough that a young black boy finally confronts the white policeman who killed both his parents; he has to provide the man with emotional closure, taking him into a tearful embrace. (A fictionalized version of Bishop Desmond Tutu, by the way, does absolutely no truth or justice to the crucial role his moral leadership played in bringing South Africa through such a difficult transition.)
The moment with the boy and his parents' murderer might have been deeply moving, had the filmmakers done the work necessary to make it the least bit authentic. Instead, as scenes fade in and out of blackout, "In My Country" increasingly looks less like a movie than a series of short, instructional billboards, each meant to Stand For Something. (The one character who is allowed any degree of complexity, a genial radio sound man named Dumi, is sadly relegated to the sidelines.)
Binoche, as usual, does an outstanding technical job with her character, even though she's primarily asked to portray Anna's wrenching emotional contradictions by simply bursting into tears. For his part, Jackson is spectacularly ill-suited for his role here, playing Langston with a combination of misplaced fire and uncharacteristic starchiness. There could be a sliver of a silver lining in the fact that Jackson might attract some of his teenage fans to a movie about South Africa and its history. With luck, those viewers will be inspired by "In My Country" to delve further into the rich, fascinating story that the film itself has failed to capture.
In My Country (104 minutes, at Regal Gallery Place, Cinema Arts Fairfax and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated R for language, including descriptions of atrocities, and for a scene of violence.