boesman and lena directed by John Berry, written by Berry from the play by Athol Fugard, produced by Francois Ivernel.
boesman and lena directed by John Berry, written by Berry from the play by Athol Fugard, produced by Francois Ivernel and Pierre Rissient, with Danny Glover and Angela Bassett. 88 minutes. A Beacon Films release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 81. Rating: NNN
boesman and lena is what you
could call good-for-you cinema. It never entertains, but instructs, and makes you feel guilty the minute you start to feel bored.
Based on the play by Athol Fugard, it stars Danny Glover as Boesman and Angela Bassett as Lena, two South Africans who wander onto a muddy riverbank on the outskirts of Cape Town. They’re homeless, their shantytown shack has been bulldozed and they’re carrying their belongings on their backs, picking up junk along the way.
As they make camp for the night, Lena addresses the silent Boesman, complaining, haranguing, trying to get her thoughts in order to remember how they got to this point in their lives. Later, they’re joined by an aged Xhosa tribesman who doesn’t speak English and whom Lena turns into her own private sounding board.
For almost 90 minutes Boesman and Lena bare their souls in intense monologues that attack, criticize and reveal their love for each another.
Glover and Bassett don’t so much play off one another as simply take turns speaking. Director Berry, who died at the age of 82 just as he finished the film’s post-production, could have brought the actors closer together in the frame, allowing them to connect more, but he keeps the piece’s staginess intact.
This is a story about the fragile connectedness of a disenfranchised couple who have been beaten down by apartheid and poverty, and not one cozy moment is permitted.
Boesman And Lena does let Bassett show what a good an actor she is. Her breakout performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It was electrifying.
For years I hoped to see the same strength in other films, and while it was there in Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, those scripts let her down.
A seething actor, Bassett allows anger, passion and joy to bubble just under the surface, and the emotional steam can be glimpsed pushing through her pores.
Lena is a showy role, but Bassett is no acting wallflower — she needs to be in the centre of the dance floor with a spotlight shining on her. What’s also wonderful is that this isn’t the well-coiffed, super-buff Bassett, but a rounder, world-weary woman, one who’s not afraid to show us the lines in her face.
Glover, as the abusive Boesman, has the trickier role, and while he’s fine, he fails to peel back many layers. He’s left that task to us, so the performance feels incomplete alongside Bassett’s powerful turn.
I can’t say I enjoyed Boesman And Lena as much as I appreciated it and the chance it provides to see Angela Bassett in the limelight once more.