The Endless River (2015)

A brutal farm murder leads to more questions than answers in third film by South Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary director, which stubbornly carves out its own path

The Endless RiverSouth Africa
3*

Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Chris Lotz

Running time: 110 minutes

Don’t let the opening credits fool you: Despite the balmy, sunset-swept imagery – replete with cloud-stained skies of twilight and golden fields of wheat – that greets the viewer of The Endless River at the outset, the mood shifts very quickly as we witness a man’s release from prison, the murder of an innocent family and the two central characters’ near-futile search for post-traumatic meaning.

Oliver Hermanus’s third film is nothing if not ambitious: Using the tragedy of a farm murder to propel the narrative forward, this is simultaneously an examination of one man’s attempts to cope with his grief, a whodunnit and a woman’s yearning for affection. However, the presentation becomes more and more fragmented and ellipses ever more frequent as the film reaches a conclusion that is even more open-ended than that of the director’s previous film, Beauty (Skoonheid). The director is firmly in control, but as both content and meaning become elusive, dependent on that which is unseen (or rather, deliberately concealed), most viewers are unlikely to remain as attached to the material and the characters as they are at the outset.

The title nominally refers to the location, the small town of Riviersonderend in South Africa’s Western Cape, even though none of the characters ever utters the name. In this rural setting, we find Percy Solomons, a young man who has just been released after four years in prison. His petite wife, Tiny, who works as a waitress at a local diner, is optimistic about their future together, although her mother, whose house the three of them share with each other, openly shares her doubts around the breakfast table. The fabulous Denise Newman plays the mother, Mona, who is as proud and devoted to her child as was the case with the title character in Hermanus’s stunning début feature, Shirley Adams, which she also portrayed; unfortunately, she is sidelined here halfway through the film.

Into this uncertainty tumbles Gilles Estève, a Frenchman with a murky past (a prominent ink stain on his thumb is never explained) who moved into a farmhouse just outside town about a year ago, although oddly enough he has not made any acquaintances. The film’s first major turning point is the murder of Gilles’s two young boys, and the murder and rape of his wife. This violent turn in the narrative only has extradiegetic sound in the form of Braam du Toit’s lilting score as a counterpoint to the horrific events on-screen. But while this artistic choice (not to mention the scene’s graceful camera moves) may appear peculiar at first, the purpose quickly becomes clear as the director’s intention is not so much to portray brutal realism as it is to attune us to the emotional journeys on which Gilles and Tiny embark.

Visually much less self-conscious than Hermanus’s previous film, which relied heavily on static or long takes, The Endless River has one robustly cinematic moment, namely the unbroken take in which we move ever closer to Percy as he makes up his mind whether to participate in a crime. Comparable to the opening shot of Beauty and a similar, albeit static, shot in Shirley Adams (although all three shots are strikingly different in their own ways, a variation for which the director deserves substantial praise), this kind of moment perfectly uses the visuals to unite the viewer with the character’s frame of mind in an unusual yet unostentatious way.

The strands of the film with which the director weaves his narrative are often strong but frayed at the tips, as we frequently have to guess how fundamental parts of the story develop. While this strategy of withholding crucial information from the viewer can help focus our attention and keep our minds active, it becomes annoying in the final act, when we seem to skip from one awkward dinner to the next while the action in between – which is of enormous importance in order to understand the film’s key relationship – is almost entirely left out of the film.

What hurts The Endless River even more, however, is the sense that Gilles, while visibly enraged at the police force’s seeming inability to solve the homicide, never thinks of his family beyond the fact of their murder. He shuts his past completely out of his mind to the point that he even refuses to look at a list of items taken from his home after it has been burgled. This may very well be his way of coping with loss, but there is not even one crack in this façade, which makes for a dramatically uninteresting character arc.

And yet, it is a testament to Hermanus’s talent as a filmmaker that we have the impression throughout – with the exception of that quick succession of homogeneous dinner scenes in the third act – that he is keeping a tight rein on the presentation of his material. Everything feels like it belongs to the same story, although, as mentioned above, one can fault him for not providing enough of the story to fill in the gaps that are as vast as the vistas in the opening credits sequence.

The film is like a jigsaw puzzle that we start constructing but realise halfway through that with every piece we place, another disappears from the box altogether. Things will likely make slightly more sense on a second viewing, but there is a palpable, perverse decision on the part of the filmmaker not to meet the viewer’s expectations.

Hermanus does not make it easy on the viewer. Instead of coming together, the story appears to unravel more and more until we realise this is a road trip that will flow forever, reaching the sea somewhere far into the future and definitely happening – like so much else we want to know about this story – offscreen. Some may find this refreshing, but given the early development of the story, most are likely to regard it as unnecessarily defiant.

Beauty (2011)

A secret obsession that inevitably leads to tragedy is presented in a film moving at a pace and according to a poetry wholly at odds with the life of its main character.

skoonheidSouth Africa
3.5*

Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Jamie Ramsay

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Skoonheid

There is no question that the man at the centre of Oliver Hermanus’s Afrikaans-language Beauty is deserving of the title every bit as much as the director’s previous, début feature, the stunningly executed Shirley Adamswas about its title character. His name is Christian Roodt, and he is a charming law student whose enigmatic aura intensifies as we realise he has a calmness about him that belies his age and his boyish good looks. It is a persona that sets others at ease and unfortunately allows some people to take advantage of his affability.

One man who sees Christian and cannot get him out of his head is François van Heerden, a friend of Roodt’s parents, who first sets eyes on the young man at his own daughter’s wedding. But even though the title refers to Christian, Hermanus gently nudges us, from the very first moment, to take position next to François, whose gaze the camera shares with us in the opening take.

This particular take – long and produced via a slow zoom in – is a master stroke, as it not only sets up the extended takes that mottle the film’s visual landscape but also gorgeously encapsulates both the distance and the longing of the main character that will inform our understanding of the rest of the story. Unfortunately, the editing spells out whom this perspective belongs to before delivering the gut punch of having the object of affection unexpectedly look straight into the camera and thus catching François (and us, already) in flagrante delicto.

The film creates some of its tension by deploying moments of lingering silence, and lead actor Deon Lotz is excellent at conveying the frustration and the inhibition of a middle-aged, homophobic man who is married to a woman but engages in sex with other men on what we assume is a regular basis (the farm orgies in which he participates are depicted as emotionless and decidedly ugly). This father of two daughters, who lives in Bloemfontein, deep in the South African heartland, likes to drink beer and watch rugby. He represses his secret until there is no more space, and it ruptures his bubble of existence.

But exactly when there ought to be tension, there is none, as happens in the third act when an inebriated François, sitting opposite Christian at an empty diner, cannot stop babbling. We learn nothing, we feel little for him, and we end up feeling sorry for the expressionless, passive Christian who has to listen to this man. And yet, this scene immediately follows a tour de force tracking shot inside a night club that shows us how ill at ease François is with the world of gay men who have accepted their own sexual orientations.

Visually, Beauty is unimpeachable (although the shots themselves may be questionable, as I explain below), and director of photography Jamie Ramsay deserves much acclaim for his stunning, crisp compositions. The intention behind the film is equally noteworthy, as the story of a man whose secret of homosexual attraction ultimately almost destroys him is one that is absolutely necessary for a generation growing up on a staple of mostly uncritically positive depictions of gay characters and lives.

It is not an easy film to watch, as Hermanus’s view of humanity (and particularly of his main character) is unflinchingly pessimistic, and François does not get a moment to relax and be happy. He is always either delusional or suffering because of his desire to get closer to Christian. He doesn’t know what he wants exactly, but he finds himself drawn like a moth to a flame. A comparison to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, or The Searchers’s Ethan Edwards, would not be entirely inappropriate, as the obsession of saving someone who does not wish or need to be saved is central to understanding the character here.

Another reason why Beauty is a difficult experience is because of its contemplative pace, which is not always useful. While the few long takes that project François’s point of view have a clear purpose, others are used less sparingly and are more taxing for the viewer. For example, why do we have to be subjected to a static shot of more than 15 seconds of a dim kitchen, shown in the early morning hours, before a character arrives to do something as captivating as… buttoning his shirt?

Hermanus’s plan to have the viewer slide in and out of François’s position is executed a bit ham-handedly, as Christian sometimes looks straight into the camera (which happens briefly in the opening scene, and at least once more later in the film), but he also looks just past the frame, and at the end he is replaced by another character who looks straight at us/François. This mishmash signals confusion on the part of the director, who nonetheless handles the rest of his material very assuredly, like an illusionist whose tricks barely engage but still intrigue us because we cannot discern exactly how he performs them so seamlessly, fooling us every time.

In this tragic tale of a man whose unrequited lust leads him to revert to the most primitive of behaviours – fitting the stereotype of the macho guy taking, nay violently grabbing, what he wants with utter disregard for the other party – we are urged to share his point of view, but there is little for us to empathize with. The mood is sombre throughout, and Hermanus’s pitch-black vision of his protagonist’s existence never draws us in through the participatory experiences that small moments of happiness would have brought.

Not a thriller and not really a character study, Beauty’s redeeming characteristic is its director’s firm hand, but a collection of technically flawless pieces does not a great film make. Slow cinema, which this film at times intends to emulate, is the domain of poets whose messages are related to us as dreams that are visionary and not just visual. Beauty, by contrast, has a story with precious little to chew on and that ought to have been told in the most immediate manner possible.

This is a beautiful film that sometimes carefully considers and depicts the life of a man whose secret is slowly devouring him, but the story’s loose ends and the director’s persistent determination to obfuscate instead of answering our questions cannot hide the fact that there is less going on here than there ought to be.

The Miracle Worker (2012)

The Miracle worker Die WonderwerkerSouth Africa
3.5*

Director:
Katinka Heyns
Screenwriter:
Chris Barnard
Director of Photography:
Koos Roets

Running time: 121 minutes

Original title: Die Wonderwerker

Feelings that remain unspoken can turn into a festering mess. The Miracle Worker, about a peculiar man who turns up on a farm in the north-eastern part of South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, at that time still a British colony, shows how tension can become a fissure when even the gentlest bit of pressure is applied.

The farm is “Rietfontein”, the year 1908, and acclaimed Afrikaans poet Eugène Marais pulls up at the front door of the farmhouse, out of breath and very thirsty, his piercing grey-blue eyes hauntingly asking the woman of the house, Tamaria (or often just Maria) van Rooyen for some water. As usual, she is a little nosy, but when he insists, she turns into a lovely hostess, running to get the water herself and offering him a bed to sweat out what he says is malaria. In fact, it is not malaria, and he ultimately stays much longer than just the night.

Maria’s husband, Gys, is the head of the household by virtue of his gender, but it is clear from the start that Maria runs everything in the house and even admits that Gys doesn’t do anything without her say-so. However, she is far from being in control, and while she has issues of her own, she also turns a blind eye to her son Adriaan’s continual sexual harassment of their adopted 19-year-old Jane. When Gys tells her Adriaan is too horny, she retorts with, “At least he has some balls.”

In that single brief exchange a great deal of character is revealed, as Maria not only indicates that Gys should pay more attention to her, but also that her own desire for affection has blinded her to the suffering inflicted on a girl in her care, under her roof, by her own son.

Maria is by far the most interesting character in the film, despite its focus purportedly being elsewhere: The title refers to the wily Marais, whose presence on the farm leads to all kinds of bizarre encounters with wildlife. Maria is played with grace and determination by actress Elize Cawood, who seems to simply slide into the role, her dialogue never coming across as contrived or affected. The same can be said of Marius Weyers, who plays Gys, although the character is unfortunately much less complex. As a matter of interest, I’ll note that Cawood and Weyers — well-known figures in the South African film and television industry for more than three decades — also appeared as husband and wife in The Fourth Reich.

The Miracle Worker is different from the Ross Devenish’s 1977 film The Guest, a film whose scarce availability stands in direct contrast to its acclaim as perhaps one of the best South African films ever made, in that the struggle with addiction – frighteningly, graphically obvious in the latter – is all but absent from Heyns’s film. While Marais’ addiction with morphine is an important thread in the plot, Heyns doesn’t show us how the poet managed to cope with a dwindling number of morphine pills, rationed out by Maria, and therefore the title character remains an enigma throughout, perhaps making him more iconic but certainly making him less accessible.

And yet, there are tiny, almost transient, hints that he has had pain in the past he would like to forget. Dawid Minnaar, who plays Marais, communicates this deep pain, or loss, by not answering certain questions posed by the curious Van Rooyens while remaining almost entirely transparent about everything else except the drugs. The psychology of the characters is mostly opaque, and we don’t learn until very late in the film what is going on inside the heads of Maria and Marais. While they eventually say what we have been thinking all along, Maria’s revelation in particular in poignant and is made by an actress who has to bare her soul and admit she has aged. It provides for a stunning moment that is perhaps one of the strongest in Cawood’s entire career.

This is the first film by director Katinka Heyns since Paljas, released in 1998. She has directed a number of television episodes since then, and unfortunately it would seem that the television style has taken over completely, as demonstrated by the almost exclusive use of medium shots and close-ups to tell the story. Never a particularly visual director, her stories have usually benefited from rich landscapes, from the forests of the southern Cape in Fiela se Kind to an enormous sand dune in Die Storie van Klara Viljee to the arrival of a circus in a small railway town in the heart of the arid Karoo region of South Africa in Paljas. 

The Miracle Worker does little to draw attention to the vast landscape of the Bosveld that surrounds the farm, and it is equally unwilling to use the camera in a way that either focuses or captures our attention. The cinematography is boring and forgettable, with the one exception of a scene of hypnosis, in which a character dances with a broom, that is shot as a reverse Steadicam shot in a single take and stands out from the rest of the film, though it is far from being especially creative.

The film’s bookend structure with scenes in Pretoria in 1932 doesn’t work, not only because we know in the opening scenes that, whatever happens, Marais will survive his ordeal on the farm and eventually meet up with the young Jane again in the future, but because it forces a very unnecessarily descriptive voice-over onto the viewer throughout the film, because the story is not told in the present but as something that happened in the past.

However, the relationship between the 19-year-old Jane and the nearly 40-year-old Marais is beautifully portrayed as something Marais himself acknowledges as a confused struggle to deal with the past, and it is a struggle with which he knows he never copes particularly successfully. The emotional pieces of the puzzle start to fit together by the end of the film, though it is unfortunate that Adriaan is never really examined and comes across as a simpleton, a simplification rejected by his curious eyes.

Marais is charming and knowledgeable, and his interactions with baboons provide the viewer with a greater appreciation of these primates. However, despite the acting talent on display, the film never truly overcomes Heyns’s inability to tell a story with any kind of cinematic flair; going by the visuals, it sometimes seems like she is bored with the material. That is a terrible shame.  As with the silence of the characters, her voice is cold and distant, but luckily the landscapes in the background, the ones she tries to keep out of the frame, make their way into the spirit of the film and end up enriching our experience.

The Fourth Reich (1990)

South Africa

3.5*
Director:
Manie van Rensburg
Screenwriter:
Malcolm Kohll
Director of Photography:
Dewald Aukema

Running time: 183 minutes

South Africa’s most expensive film to date brought together the cream of the country’s film industry to tell the real-life story of Robey Leibbrandt, an Afrikaans boxer turned revolutionary, who was planning to assassinate the country’s pro-British prime minister, General Jan Smuts, shortly after the Second World War broke out.

Originally shot as a television series before being edited down and screened across the country to tepid public interest, the film ultimately wound up, two years later, on the country’s television screens. The Fourth Reich had an estimated budget of R16 million ($6 million at the time, around $10.5 million today, which is an enormous figure for a South African film; by contrast, the 2005 Oscar-winning film, Tsotsi, was made for $3 million). It is evident that a large amount of the budget was spent on set design and costumes, but the film also benefits from being shot on location very often, and the South African countryside, with its wide open spaces and pre-war dirt roads, is well represented in this film.

The film opens in Berlin during the Olympic Games of 1936, where South African boxer Robey Leibbrandt is recruited by the German government when they learn of his affection for the National Socialist Party’s ideology and his admiration of their leader. “The Führer has created a miracle. That’s exactly what we need to happen in South Africa.” He spends the next few years training in Germany, until Germany invades Poland and Britain declares war.

In South Africa, the people’s state of mind at this time must be framed within the context of events at the turn of the century: South Africans had fought and lost against the British in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and even after becoming the Union of South Africa in 1910, a British colony, many South Africans still had little affection for the Crown. Shortly before WWII, the “Ossewabrandwag” (literally, the Ox-wagon sentinel), an ultra-nationalist organisation, was formed to resist cooperation with the British. However, General Jan Smuts, who was the country’s deputy prime minister at the time, opposed Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog (who advocated neutrality towards Germany), stating that, “in war, you are either friend or enemy”.

After Smuts defeated Hertzog in this matter, he was appointed Prime Minister, and became an instant target for the Ossewabrandwag, who disliked the British as much as they idolised the German ideologies of nationalism and anti-Semitism.

The Fourth Reich focuses on Robey Leibbrandt’s preparations for the assassination of Jan Smuts (Louis van Niekerk, made up to look exactly like the General), and on the policeman whose assignment is to track down Leibbrandt before he can carry out his mission: Jan Taillard. In the first hour of the film, these two men’s journeys (and in particular, their gestures) are intercut in a way that binds them together. Ultimately, however, it is a German woman, Erna Dorfman (very often accompanied by the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2), whom they both encounter, who will introduce them to each other and play an important role in the development of the narrative.

Taillard is a very competent but badly mannered policeman; when he is called to Pretoria from his home in Queenstown, his wife kindly advises him: “Try and follow orders this time…” The mission, which he chooses to accept, requires him to locate whoever is planning to assassinate Prime Minister Smuts, without breathing a word to anybody, including his dutiful wife, Romy (played by Elize Cawood, whose voice is both golden and vulnerable). In the meantime, Leibbrandt sneaks into South Africa via South-West Africa (the present-day Namibia) and seeks to incite members of the Ossewabrandwag to join him in overthrowing the government by committing acts of sabotage on power and railway lines. The faithful are asked to swear a blood oath with the following words, by Henri de la Rochejaquelein.

If I advance, follow me
If I retreat, shoot me
If I die, avenge me.

Ironically, de la Rochejaquelein had been a Royalist in eighteenth-century France, allied with the British to fight against the post-Revolutionary republican government with the aim of restoring the monarchy.

Ryno Hattingh’s performance as Robey Leibbrandt is commendable, but he is given too little to do. The man has to be charismatic, and while the character tries to emulate Adolf Hitler’s elocution when he makes important speeches, the result is not very moving; often he is presented as arrogant and the film does not seek to delve much deeper into his character. On the other hand, as Jan Taillard, Marius Weyers brings a quiet self-confidence to a very human character whose secret mission to defend the prime minister destabilises his life and alienates him from his family.

The film was clearly meant for television, as people usually speak in close-up and story lines that should have been left out completely in the theatrical version show up as unsatisfactory snippets, for example Leibbrandt’s arrival in the Sperrgebiet of South-West Africa, of which a single scene survives, with actress Wilma Stockenström, that doesn’t lead anywhere. Another very bad moment comes early in the film, when Frau Dorfman has a passionate encounter with Leibbrandt: while they make out in slow-motion, actress Grethe Fox’s otherwise stone-cold face is contorted and it seems like she is in agony, and yet the foreplay continues.

It is regrettable that director Manie van Rensburg chose to make a film in English, spoken by a cast of mostly Afrikaans players who all have a very recognisably Afrikaans accent. While an anti-British South African identity does not necessarily imply that the speakers be Afrikaans, it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief when English is used as the lingua franca between members of a very Afrikaans movement such as the Ossewabrandwag.

In the closing credits, the filmmaker seems to acknowledge that the film was made to rehabilitate the reputation of Jan Taillard, whose hard work to protect General Smuts was disregarded by the post-war Nationalist government. The film itself is a very good depiction of life in South Africa in the early 1940s, including the influence of Nazi politics on South Africa during this time, and it is always a pleasure to see individuals such as Smuts brought to life on-screen. The Fourth Reich was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a South African director in his own country and while the film struggles to overcome its television origins, it is a marvellous reminder of the beauty of the South African landscape and the narrative possibilities that the country’s history offers to filmmakers.

A Reasonable Man (1999)

South Africa

4*
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Director of Photography:
Buster Reynolds

Running time: 101 minutes

The South African A Reasonable Man is a carefully executed investigation into the importance of tribal or traditional beliefs in a country that sees itself as Western-oriented. The screenplay takes great care to handle the material sensibly, demonstrating the significance of the past in the present, and highlighting the fact that non-Western beliefs should not be dismissed out of hand, for they too have a role to play, however “unreasonable” their basis might be in the eyes of the law.

The film opens in Angola in 1988, during the final years of the South African Border War. South African soldiers arrive in a tiny village where they find nothing but abandoned houses. The squad separates and a young Sean Raine goes to hide in one of these houses. When a closet door creaks, the tense Raine unloads his gun on the flimsy plywood door. What tumbles out of the closet will haunt him for a long time.

Ten years later, having recently returned to South Africa after spending a decade abroad with his wife, Raine meets a young cowherd named Sipho in a village in the Eastern part of the country known as Kwazulu-Natal. Sipho is found with a bloody hatchet in his hands, while a woman clutches a one-year-old baby in her arms, its head split open. Sipho swears that he was only trying to kill the “Tikoloshe” (or “Tokoloshe”, as I know it), an evil spirit, and not the baby. Luckily, Raine is a lawyer, and because of his experience in Angola he decides to give the boy a chance and chooses to represent him in court.

But “Tikoloshe” is not a word that anybody takes kindly to – except Sipho and a witch doctor (or “sangoma”) who would help rid Sean Raine of his demons from the past – and it seems unlikely that the boy, who admits to having swung the hatchet, would be judged innocent. Hearing this case is Judge Wendon, whose initial surprise at Raine’s refusal to let his client plead insanity defence slowly morphs into a more accommodating view of the young lawyer. Starring as Judge Wendon is Nigel Hawthorne, who brings a very welcome combination of compassion, wit and judicial solemnity to the role.

At the centre of the film, however, is director Gavin Hood himself, who is cast as Sean Raine, a man whose big clean-shaven face is innocent yet shimmers with conviction and perseverance. The film is as much about Raine’s personal story as the criminal proceeding, for he feels that he would finally be freed from this “snake deep inside” if he manages to assure Sipho’s acquittal.

Now, it is made clear that Sipho took a hatchet and struck a baby in such a way that the baby was killed. Sipho believed that it was the Tikoloshe, but the steadfastness of one’s beliefs has nothing to do with the law, as Judge Wendon makes very clear in his comparison of Sipho’s beliefs with those of mass murderers and historical figures such as Hitler and Stalin.

Hood’s screenplay flows very well, although its desire not only to meet the audience more than halfway but to spell everything out in overly informative sentences sometimes seems quite contrived. Sipho’s character has to be a bit of an enigma in order for the film to exist, but the lack of interaction between him and Raine, as well as the complete absence of the mother of the murdered baby, left me wondering whether Hood was not too interested in his own character.

The film makes an interesting analogy between Christian and tribal beliefs, including the ever-popular metaphor of Christ’s blood and body, and in this regard Hood is successful in introducing his audience to customs that might be foreign to them. Hood’s choice to make the state prosecutor a black advocate and himself, a white man, the representative for the defence of tribal beliefs, is very interesting and provides this film with a much richer texture than it would have had otherwise.

The implications of an imbalance, in the eyes of the law, between Western and non-Western morality is hammered home a bit too forcefully, but in the end the film survives its examination of social and religious customs and certainly provides ample material for discussion afterwards. The courthouse is in Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, a town whose licence plate designation is NP. Perhaps this is a coincidence. But, considering the film’s attention to detail, perhaps it isn’t.

Shirley Adams (2009)

South Africa
4.5*

Director:
Oliver Hermanus
Screenwriters:
Stavros Pamballis
Oliver Hermanus
Director of Photography:
Jamie Ramsay

Running time: 90 minutes

Shirley Adams is a proud woman trying to cope as well as she can with her domestic situation. Nine months before the film starts, her teenage son, Donovan, had been hit by a stray bullet while he was returning home in a crime-ridden low-income area of Cape Town, South Africa, known as the “Cape Flats”. The incident left Donovan paralysed, a quadriplegic. A few months later, Shirley’s husband abandoned them, never to be seen again. From time to time, they do receive an envelope with some money, but Shirley never questions the origins of the support, having accepted the responsibility of caring for Donovan all on her own.

In the film’s harrowing opening scene, which takes place in the dead of night, the camera nervously hovers over Shirley’s shoulders while she tries to resuscitate Donovan; he is unconscious, and foaming at the mouth, and in the following scene, in case we couldn’t guess, a doctor tells Shirley that Donovan had tried to commit suicide.

Shirley has devoted herself to the well-being of her only child, but Donovan, who is frustrated by his own helplessness and ashamed at being cared for (his mother has to wash him in the bathtub, an event that Donovan considers the ultimate form of his own debasement), is already in a downward spiral – and his suicide attempt at the beginning of the film is a good indication of how low his self-image has fallen. As a result of his own demons, and probably without any cruel intentions, Donovan lashes out at this mother, and their relationship clearly suffers because of his apparent ingratitude for her help.

The word that best describes the film’s camerawork would be “intimate”. Director Oliver Hermanus and his DP, Jamie Ramsay, tend to show the events from behind Shirley and this stubborn focus on intimacy can cause some frustration in a viewer who – admittedly, by convention, but with good reason, in my opinion – expects an establishing shot now and again. However, despite this unrelentingly close experience of events, a number of self-conscious shots in which we only see the back of main actress Denise Newman’s head, and a story that is very simple, first-time director Hermanus succeeds in gripping his audience thanks to his self-assured direction that steers the film away from any fake sentimentality. His approach is entirely appropriate for the story he is telling, and it is plain to see that the film was a labour of love.

Shirley Adams does not contain any picturesque views of the Mother City (the locals’ nickname for Cape Town), but the accents and the slight shifts between languages make it a very clearly defined story from South Africa; at the same time, it seems odd to label it a South African film, not merely because it mostly eschews any mention of politics, but because, frankly, the country has never before produced anything like it. If any specific influence is to be discerned, it would be the films of the Romanian New Wave: The film contains a number of single takes, but one shot in particular, which occurs during Donovan’s birthday, is very reminiscent of the famous shot around the dinner table in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Hermanus’s Shirley Adams is an example of exceptional filmmaking and ranks amongst the best films his country has ever produced.