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Saturday, December 17, 2016

MISTER JOHNSON (1990)

Even at his considerable best, Bruce Beresford favors the neat & tidy, crisply tucking in all dramatic corners. Cinema as ‘well-made’ play. His best known pics, BREAKER MORANT/’80 and DRIVING MISS DAISY/’89 were, indeed, both adapted from ‘well-made’ plays. But here we have something looser, messier; uncomfortable to play, uncomfortable to watch in a way Beresford rarely is. And while the film opened & closed without leaving a trace, Beresford thought it the best film he’d ever made. He was right. It’s early 1920s, East Africa, British Colonial period & all that, and Mister Johnson (debuting Maynard Eziashi) is a local native striver working as clerk to Pierce Brosnan’s town magistrate. Clever & incompetent, Johnson cultivates all the exterior trappings of British civilization (oops, civilisation), but underpinned with African sensibilities. The dichotomy cuts two ways, consistently getting him into trouble yet offering highly original solutions to intractable problems. For Brosnan, the main task is getting a road built to the main highway, but Johnson may not keep his position long enough to get it finished. That’s alright, he can always go into trade with local dealer, and casual racist, Edward Woodward (in an appallingly honest turn, half comic/half tragic). Treated by employers and by his own people, with equal suspicion, Johnson gayly burns his bridges as he moves onward & upward, but there’s a limit, no? The film is funny, insightful, tragic and devastatingly fine. Excellent extras, too, on a new Criterion edition.

DOUBLE-BILL: The only other major film from author Joyce Cary is THE HORSE’S MOUTH/’58 with Alec Guinness as an irascible modernist painter. (Guinness got an Oscar nom for his script.) BTW, this Joyce Cary is the well-known male novelist; the well-known female Joyce Carey is the character actress best-remembered as running the train station food counter in BRIEF ENCOUNTER/’45.

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