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‘A Good Man in Africa’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 09, 1994

The protagonist of "A Good Man in Africa," Bruce Beresford's prosaic film version of William Boyd's novel about Brits in Africa, is a boozer and a womanizer and an absolute amoral slob. By no means is he a good man, and, at least at the beginning of the film, he couldn't care less.

Morgan Leafy (Colin Friels) is a career underachiever assigned to a mid-level diplomatic post in a fictitious West African nation known as Kinjanja. He hates his job and hates Kinjanja, and through a combination of sloth, incompetence and bad karma, manages to make a fine mess of nearly everything he touches. For the most part, Leafy's tenure has been uneventful, allowing him to pursue his vices with dedicated zeal. But the discovery of oil off Kinjanja's coast has prompted British High Commissioner Fanshawe to embark on a mission to Kinjanja to secure the rights to the reserves.

To this end, Fanshawe (played with supercilious verve by John Lithgow), assigns Leafy the task of persuading Kinjanja's leading candidate for president, Professor Adekunle (Louis Gossett Jr.), to sell the rights to the British. But the cagey Adekunle catches his scheming wife (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) in flagrante delicto with Leafy, and using the bumbling diplomat's indiscretion as leverage, forces him to try to bribe Dr. Murray (Sean Connery) into approving a development deal that will make Adekunle millions. All this double-dealing is a bit of a shock even to Leafy. Up till now, his personal brand of corruption has been sleazy but rather passive. He's a cad and a liar, but until he meets Murray, who is too principled to be bought off, he could at least look at himself sideways in the mirror. To Leafy, Murray is the last good man in Africa, and after several chance encounters with this bristly Scot, Leafy begins to think about turning his life around.

Leafy's moral transformation is at the center of "A Good Man in Africa," but, frankly, the character is such a lightweight that one hardly cares what happens to him. Friels is a likable enough actor, and though he sweats and smiles like a man in a near-constant state of panic, he doesn't display the emotional heft to give the character any authority.

In the past, the Australian-born Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") has earned a reputation as an actor's director, but here it seems as if he was unable to decide on a consistent approach for his cast. Lithgow, Diana Rigg and Sarah Jane Fenton (as Fanshawe, his wife and daughter) strut about in full-blown caricature, while Gossett and Whalley-Kilmer are more naturalistic, and Friels struggles somewhere in between. As for Sean Connery, he is simply Sean Connery, and what little there is of him here is choice.

Beresford and Boyd, who adapted his own novel for the film, attempt to re-create the novel's atmosphere of casual debauchery. But somehow the combination of gin and gonorrhea that they offer seems somewhat less than shocking. Beresford has previously shown sensitivity for the everyday interactions between the races, but this time the dynamics are simplistic and obvious. With its widely acclaimed source material and a cast of distinguished actors, "A Good Man in Africa" held the possibility of being a welcome departure from the ordinary. Instead, ordinary is what it rises to at its best.

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