Director: Bruce Beresford
Stars: Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan, Beatie Edney, Edward Woodward
First viewing, via DVD
My admiration and fondness for Bruce Beresford’s work is well-documented: see my previous reviews of such diverse fare as the excellent The Fringe Dwellers, the entertaining The Club, the red-headed larrikin stepchild Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, and the decidedly mixed bag of American films that is King David, Crimes of the Heart, and Last Dance. Beresford has done stronger work overseas than those three median efforts; indeed, based on the one-two-three punch of 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, 1990’s Mister Johnson, and 1991’s Black Robe, Beresford should be heralded as one of the finest working directors of that period. As it stands, Driving Miss Daisy reaped all the glory (and the inevitable post-awards backlash) and Black Robe’s reputation has blossomed steadily over time, but Mister Johnson was and remains virtually unknown. Beresford himself notes that it was “the best reviewed film I ever made by far, and seen by no-one” (There’s a Fax from Bruce, p. 166).
The film, based on a novel by Joyce Cary, is set in Nigeria in 1923. The British colonial apparatus is in full swing, with Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan) serving as magistrate for a small community and overseeing the construction of a road. He is assisted in these matters by Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi), a local with the boon of British education and civic responsibility. Yet Johnson does not fit neatly into either culture: this is his tragic flaw and ultimate downfall.
Like the recently reviewed Mr Reliable (no relation), Mister Johnson’s promotional art doesn’t necessarily capture the spirit of the film. The poster art below is particularly misleading, with a glaring spelling error to boot:
Lest you think Beresford’s film is a racy, racist adventure film starring Pierce Brosnan as 007-in-safari-wear hunting a “black man to (sic) smart for his own good” across the Dark Continent, let me assure you Mister Johnson is a thoughtful, impeccably made film and Mister Johnson himself a beautifully, tragically realised and performed character. Actor Maynard Eziashi does wonderful, empathetic work in the titular role, as a liminal figure striving to reinvent himself as a “civilised” gentleman and ingratiate himself with the British. By virtue of race Johnson is incapable of doing so, but he is also too British for his fellow Nigerians; he straddles both camps and belongs to neither, yet maintains a perennially upbeat disposition in the face of such complications. Representing British interests, future Bond Brosnan and former Equalizer Edward Woodward (a Beresford veteran following Breaker Morant and King David) are solid as the conflicted logical magistrate and a thuggish entrepreneur with upper-crust pretensions respectively. Beatie Edney also does good work with little material as Brosnan’s new-to-Africa wife.
Liberal humanist race drama is a recurring motif in Beresford’s filmography, as seen in films like The Fringe Dwellers, Driving Miss Daisy, and the recent Eddie Murphy-starring Mr Church (no relation). Like those films, there’s a lightness of touch to Mister Johnson: while there’s a tragic dimension to the title character and the spectre of an inevitable and sad denouement hangs over the story, the film never feels too tragic or maudlin, and at times is joyous, much like its protagonist. A director like Spielberg would have sunk the film in sap, or an Alan Parker type would have stuffed it with righteous indignation and self-importance. In Beresford’s hands, Mister Johnson is, tonally, something of a minor miracle. It’s one of two Beresford films in the Criterion Collection (along with Breaker Morant) and deservedly so.
Next time: A belated tribute to the late John Clarke with the late Paul Cox’s Lonely Hearts (1982).