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.

                                     Rating:        B-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.