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‘In My Country’ fails to involve viewers

Samuel L. Jackson stars as an American reporter in South Africa. By David Germain
/ Source: The Associated Press

A clear passion project for the director, John Boorman’s “In My Country” is high on ideals yet disappointing on drama, the promising story set in post-apartheid South Africa failing to really involve viewers.

Despite the intriguing juxtaposition of Samuel L. Jackson as an American reporter and Juliette Binoche as an Afrikaans poet, the film presents stiff characters whose relationships are awkwardly contrived.

Boorman, a frequent traveler to South Africa and admirer of blacks and whites who opposed apartheid, does strike some noble notes in the film’s tone, particularly in setting forth the notion of “Ubuntu,” an African philosophy of forgiveness over vengeance.

But the film’s real substance — stories of torture, abuse and atrocity that were related during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings — takes a backseat to a pedestrian story of kinship and romance between Jackson and Binoche. The result calls to mind “Cry Freedom,” in which the compelling figure of South African activist Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) was secondary to a far less interesting story of the white journalist (Kevin Kline) who became his friend.

“In My Country” is based on the book “Country of My Skull” by Antjie Krog, a poet who reported on the commission hearings for South African state radio and who was the basis for Binoche’s character.

In the mid-1990s, the post-apartheid government set up the commission to examine human-rights violations under the old regime. More than 20,000 victims told their stories, often given the chance to confront their tormentors face to face and demand explanations.

For participating in the hearings, many perpetrators were granted amnesty.

Screenwriter Ann Peacock, a South Africa native herself, creates a clumsy culture-clash backdrop to the hearings to give the film an interpersonal arc lacking in Krog’s accounts of commission testimony.

A fictionalized Washington Post reporter, Langston Whitfield (Jackson) is inserted into Krog’s story, visiting from America to cover the hearings. Coming from a country with its own unsavory history of racial discrimination, Whitfield responds angrily to the idea that white Afrikaners who committed vile acts could turn up at the hearings, behave contritely and get off without punishment.

He initially views poet and fellow reporter Anna Malan (Binoche) as a naive idealist unable or unwilling to face the truth about crimes her race committed against South Africa’s blacks.

As the hearings progress and heartache emerges from both victims and oppressors, Anna and Langston predictably find their preconceptions challenged. Continually tossed together through artificial plot devices, they move from suspicion and friction to friendship and affection.

Given Anna’s seemingly happy marriage, the latter rings false, like a standard Hollywood ploy to gussy up a real-life story with bogus romance, a surprising concession for a filmmaker as independent-minded as Boorman.

Jackson and Binoche muster occasional chemistry and have some nice moments together, but they are hamstrung by the script’s phony dynamics.

The filmmakers also fabricate a concrete villain to hate, Col. De Jager (Brendan Gleeson, who starred in Boorman’s “The General” and appeared in the director’s “The Tailor of Panama”).

As an embodiment of all that was despicable about apartheid, De Jager fits the bill. An interview he grants to Langston, though, feels just as forced as the other contrivances and liberties the film takes to dramatize Krog’s story.