'Beloved Country': Impressive performances Movie review: A persuasive argument against apartheid brings stellar work from James Earl Jones and Richard Harris.

January 12, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

It's impossible to walk away from "Cry, The Beloved Country" without being impressed by everyone and everything associated with it. Which is not something you can say about many Hollywood films these days.

Of course, this isn't a Hollywood film, but rather the first film to come out of post-apartheid South Africa. So Tinseltown's image is safe.

As is South Africa's future, if the film's twin themes of nobility and reconciliation are indeed reflective of the country that produced it. In bringing Alan Paton's acclaimed 1948 novel to the screen, director Darrell James Roodt and screenwriter Ronald Harwood concentrate on one simple message: People can live together better by practicing respect and tolerance than by embracing hate and belligerence.

James Earl Jones has the role of his career as Anglican priest Stephen Kumalo, forced to leave his Zulu village by a telegram warning that his sister, who left years ago for Johannesburg, is in trouble. Kumalo is afraid to visit the big city; his sister, brother and son have all traveled there, and he hasn't heard from any of them.

But family overcomes fear and he travels to Johannesburg, where he meets a more worldly priest, Theophilus Msimangu. The younger priest, impressed by Kumalo's nobility, agrees to help him reunite his family.

Unfortunately, it's a reunion from hell. His brother has forsaken the church, embraced political activism and has no time for the family he left behind. His sister has become a prostitute. And his son, Absalom, is in prison and about to go on trial for murder.

The victim, whom Absalom insists he shot by accident, was a leading white reformer, a tireless fighter for racial equality. The victim's father, James Jarvis, a wealthy landowner who shares none of those liberal views, is devastated by the murder. But even more devastating is the eventual realization that he and Stephen Kumalo live in the same town.

Rather than become angry, however, Jarvis comes to respect Kumalo -- and, belatedly, the wisdom of his son's political views.

Richard Harris, one of filmdom's most incorrigible scene chewers, plays Jarvis with a restraint he's never shown before. Jones is the undisputed star of the film, and Harris does nothing to wrest attention from him. The first meeting between the two fathers could be used as an acting primer; the film's emotional high-water mark is played without tears and with very few words.

With such strong leads, it would be easy for the supporting cast to fade into the background. But the acting is so uniformly strong no one fails to make an impression. South African actor Vusi Kunene is especially impressive as Msimangu, who sees in Kumalo the holy man he's struggling to become.

It's hard to find a wrong note in "Cry, the Beloved Country." The cinematography is gorgeous, showing a South Africa filled with breathtaking landscapes, yet not flinching when showing the squalor of Johannesburg's ghettos. Mr. Roodt's elegant direction lets the story unfold without unusual angles or other camera tricks. And Mr. Harwood's script knows when to shut up and let the actors' faces tell the story.

This film is as strong an indictment of apartheid as there's ever been, yet it refuses to take sides or point fingers. How can you help but be moved by a film that eschews hate in favor of respect -- and tells a moving story while it's at it.

'Cry, the Beloved Country'

Starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris

Directed by Darrell James Roodt

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

*** 1/2

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