Mister Johnson (1990)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1990. Screenplay by , based on the novel by Cinematography by . Produced by Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by Film Editing by .

Bruce Beresford returns audiences to Africa five years after Sydney Pollock’s Oscar winner, this time for a film with a much more critical eye towards the colonialism they both present with such picturesque beauty.  Based on the novel by Joyce Cary, it stars as the title character, whose first name we never learn, and who works as a clerk in the administration office of a government official () in 1920s Nigeria.  Mister Johnson fully buys into the legitimacy of the British presence as keepers and protectors of his land, referring to England as his homeland and dressing in a fine gentleman’s suit that sets him apart from his peers, believing he has what it takes to be a great and successful man who will be rewarded for his contribution to upholding the glory of the empire.  Unfortunately, he’s also bad with money, spending more than he has, and also relies too much on the belief that his charm and ingenuity will get him out of the pickles he gets himself into: his assistance helping Brosnan build a road that will turn their tiny village into a thriving metropolis sees him cooking books for the boss and taking the blame entirely, never allowed to recover from his mistakes the way the colonizers are.  When his efforts at survival lead to more and more desperate measures, it puts him in trouble with his debtors and leads to a devastating action that he cannot recover from; the very nature of our ideas of right and wrong is examined as we find ourselves wondering if morality can exist in a world where people’s choices are limited by a social order.  It’s a film brimming over with gorgeous imagery shot by cinematographer Peter James in rich and vibrant colours, and while Beresford doesn’t make anything scintillating of Cary’s rather straightforward narrative, he very wisely relies on the charisma of Eziashi’s performance to bring a great deal of sympathy to the character’s plight, you cannot help but pity his obviously foolish schemes.

The Criterion Collection:  #774

Berlin Film Festival Award:  Best Actor (Maynard Eziashi)

Toronto International Film Festival:  1990

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