Tuesday, February 9, 2016
#774: Mister Johnson
Mister Johnson is a halfway decent movie. It's often beautiful with impressive production design, and most of the performances (I'll get to that in a minute) are well-balanced and more nuanced than the page demands. The story it tells has potential as both a complementary piece to Beresford's classic Breaker Morant that sits next to it in the Collection and as a unique commentary on colonialism and its impact on Africa. In some stretches, usually when focused exclusively on the Africans, it nearly fulfills this promise.
But alas, it's not meant to be, and Mister Johnson ends up as a mediocre and forgettable film that is wholly undeserving of its place in the Collection. This is not a bad movie, but merely an unsuccessful one. The script is obvious and nearly literal when it should be poetic and complex. The characters are often overdrawn and ham-handed, and the film centers around a character who is unlikable and often rings false. This character, the titular Mister Johnson, is played by Maynard Eziashi, who admittedly has a very tough role to play here. But while his choices for the character feel right, his abilities fail to match the complexity that his character demands. Someone who should be struggling with his balance between two worlds at all times instead vacillates between the two as the script (often too obviously) demands. This is an especially big problem because none of the other characters in the film are given enough complexity to carry some of the weight. The closest anyone really comes is the racist drunk general store owner, which is probably not a good sign.
But the worst thing about Mister Johnson is that all of its complexity as a portrait of colonialism on Africa is lost in the simplicity of the white absolution of guilt for the actions taken on their behalf. Though I do not doubt that people similar to Mister Johnson appeared to exist to the white adventurer in the early 20th century, I also doubt that this simplistic and condescending representation of the character is authentic to the experience. The essay Criterion includes in their release ends with a reference to the great novel Things Fall Apart, and the direct comparison is a reminder that this approach to the issues of colonialism smacks of the same cultural subjugation as the invasion itself. In the essay they mention that Walter Huston was initially considered for the director chair here before his death, and while Huston is the (infinitely) better director, I wonder if this poisonous tree could have borne edible fruit with anyone at the helm.
Bruce Beresford has made two good movies in his career, Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies, and one Best Picture winner in the also mediocre Driving Miss Daisy. That film took a similar approach to racial politics, but its identifiable characters and universal relationships helped endear it to the Academy of old white people. Since then, he's made films ranging from total dreck to passable studio schlock. As a companion piece to Breaker Morant, perhaps as other Criterion fans have suggested as a bonus film on that disc, Mister Johnson is an interesting investigation of Beresford approaching a different angle of the British Empire, illuminating his limitations in this regard. As a standalone disc, however, Mister Johnson is worse than the bad movies like Armageddon and I Am Curious in the Collection; again, it's not a horrifically bad movie, just one that lacks anything at all of note in film history or in the way of understanding the medium. I'd be surprised if anyone could make a convincing case for its inclusion in the Collection beyond Beresford telling them they could only take Breaker Morant on a date if they let its ugly little brother tag along. Even then, they should have let it out of the car on the way to the theater.