|Boesman & Lena
A black South African couple dispossessed from their shanty town
trek to desolate mud flats where they set up camp for the night. That is
essentially the bare bones plot of Athol Fugard's searing stage play
BOESMAN & LENA which has been adapted to the screen (for the
second time) by the late John Berry, who died within days of completing
post-production. Although it does not completely overcome its theatrical
roots -- it is basically a two character drama -- this adaptation allows
its leading players, Angela Bassett and Danny Glover, an opportunity
to display their prodigious talents.
As the film opens, Boesman (Glover) is clearly the dominant one,
a brute who has browbeaten (in every manner) his companion Lena
(Bassett). During the opening scenes, the audience sees them being
driven from their home as bulldozers level the jerrybuilt shacks of their
community. This is old hat for the couple, who are inexplicably bound
together by ties of love and hate. Indeed, Lena bears the physical bruises
from Boesman's beatings and clearly also carries psychological ones
as well. As with any longstanding couple, each knows how to push the
other's buttons: Lena taunts Boesman about his drinking and Boesman
orders Lena about like a servant. Over the course of the film, they
engage in a battle of wills that invokes dramas like Edward Albee's
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet the bleakness of the landscape and
their lives also recall such existential plays as Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit
and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Lena's world is brightened somewhat when an elderly Kaffir she
dubs Outa (Willie Jonah) appears from out of nowhere. Adopting this
stranger like a stray puppy, she uses his presence to incite jealousy
in Boesman. Although she cannot communicate with Outa (they speak
different languages), Lena prattles on, recounting moments from her life.
When the elderly man expires, she cleverly uses his death as a means
to upset the balance of power between her and Boesman. Fugard ends
his work on a note of tentative reconciliation.
John Berry directed the New York stage production in the early
1970s, and he was clearly comfortable with the material and this film
version was clearly a labor of love. He and his two actors perfectly
capture the play's spirit. Despite judicious pruning, however, the
verbosity (both Boesman and Lena have numerous soliloquies) could
prove off-putting to some audiences. Scenes that on stage are electric
lose some of their dynamism when translated to film. Berry's attempts
to "open up" the action with the use of "flash-memories" are adequate
but perhaps aren't used as such as could have been. The talkiness
of the film does bear down on the patience of the viewer.
The performers cannot be faulted, however. Glover, who previously
has appeared on stage in several Fugard plays (most notably in
Master Harold … and the boys) and has portrayed South African president
Nelson Mandela, is comfortable with the required accent. His Boesman
is brash and self-possessed, a man puffed up by the sway of influence
he waves over his lover Lena. Glover does not shy from making the
character unpalatable but he imbues Boesman with enough humanity
that Boesman is not a complete villain. He is merely a product of his
society that oppresses black men. His anger and his venting of that fury
via abuse and/or drunkenness, while inexcusable, is somehow justified.
Bassett matches Glover in her interpretation of Lena. Although she
sometimes struggles with the accent, the actress allows the audience
to see Lena's determination and spirit. In her interpretation, Lena is
a woman who has suffered but has not lost her capacity for joy or her
dignity. Over the course of the film, she moves from the underdog to
the victor. At the close of the story, Lena emerges as the triumphant
one, however hollow the victory.
BOESMAN & LENA is a hybrid of theater and film, and Berry
was not able to find the middle ground. Nevertheless, the finished
film does provide its stars with a vehicle for their capabilities.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.