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‘Mister Johnson’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 26, 1991

Cultures don't clash in the high-spirited, finally poignant "Mister Johnson," they rub against each other like pebbles in a busy stream. The eponymous hero, a charming Nigerian who fancies himself an English gentleman, has been polished by the process, but only a little. Educated by missionaries, he wears a three-piece suit over his loincloth. He is a Frankenstein's monster of manners.

Directed by Bruce Beresford from William Boyd's adaptation of the Joyce Cary novel, this seriously funny story takes place in the 1920s in a far outpost of the empire, the dusty one-camel town of Fada. Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi) is the chief clerk of Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), a career civil servant who wants to bring civilization to Fada by building a road to a large city to the north. When the road funds are exhausted, Mister Johnson comes up with the idea of using monies reserved for new uniforms and so on. Little does he know he has discovered what the law-givers at the end of that road will call "embezzlement." The stuffy, rigid Rudbeck seems a little too willing to bend the rules when the resourceful Mister Johnson comes up with his plan. But Rudbeck is determined to leave a legacy more permanent than paperwork behind him. And then too, it's hard for him to resist Mister Johnson's ebullience, much less his adulation. Sadly, it turns out that Mister Johnson is the better man by far, but if there's to be a scapegoat, that scapegoat will be black. Which is not to say that Mister Johnson doesn't ask for trouble.

With his love of good beer, lavish entertainment and costly English garb, the hero would have found larceny in any era. Indeed he seems a fictional forebear of Charlie Sheen's naif in "Wall Street." But Eziashi portrays him with an antique charm that calls up admittedly odd visions of Mary Poppins with her umbrella and the genteel crooks of "The Lavender Hill Mob." He seems magical. If he steals, he steals dreams.

Beresford, robbed of the Best Director Oscar for "Driving Miss Daisy" two years ago, finds himself in familiar territory with "Mister Johnson." He's explored that place where two people come together, like tides from warring seas. No great friend of colonialism, Beresford makes his point without losing sight of either history or its mostly unsung heroes.

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