Apartheid may be over, but the events of a small South African village still resonate with its inhabitants in “LADYGREY.” Directed and co-written by Alain Choquart the melancholia of a community forced to continue a tense and uneven existence is, despite the bleakness of its characters, a beautiful experience.
Starring Emily Mortimer, Liam Cunningham, Peter Sarsgaard and Jérémie Renier, LadyGrey is the name of a school, and of the village, where 11 black children were gunned down by whites during the apartheid years. The bodies were never found and two French nurses were murdered in retribution, one of these women was Sarsgaard’s wife.
The film follows Samuel (Sarsgaard), who aspires to be a horticulturist cultivating and selling roses, and his son who spends his days making a tunnel through the cane to the river; the same one his mother disappeared in years before. Argus (Cunningham) and his new city wife Olive (Mortimer) as well as Mattis (Renier), a lad who is “slow” and an odd assortment of characters are all seen going through their everyday lives.
“LADYGREY” looks gorgeous and is shot beautifully. The main problem with the film is its downbeat air and the characters who all seem to have much more in common with Mattis than with Argus or Olive. Samuel obsesses over his roses yet when Waldo (Jude Foley) shows them off to the bossman (Argus) he dismisses them as weeds.
A cast of “simple” yet dispassionate characters fill the film. Mattis’ sister, a mixed race prostitute who gets one of her customers to sort out her brother’s custody, is the preferred sex partner of Argus and the man is so cold to his “city wife” Olive one wonders why he married her.
There is a simmering discord between the races in this multilingual film. French, Afrikaans and English are spoken throughout and the connecting factor in this drama are the French characters. Left over from the days when the village housed a mission, these people could be seen as the conscience of the village, or at the very least its chroniclers.
The eagle, that Mattis so yearns for seems to represent a type of freedom while the doomed sheep the repressed people murdered by the white farmers, the jackals. Samuel has a barely hidden contempt for his black neighbors
Choquart’s film is peopled with bleak and cold characters. The only one who has any passion is Mortimer’s Olive. This is fitting as the nurse is not from the village and therefore not scarred by its horrific events in the recent past.
The day after she discovers her husband has been sleeping with a client, skeletal remains are found in a drainage ditch. As a memorial service is held Olive is given Samuel’s dead wife’s wedding band.
A sense of foreboding permeates every single frame of this film, leaving the viewer tense and waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop. Despite this, the music and the landscape of South Africa make this French, Belgian and South African film a feast for the eyes.
It captures the feeling and the essence of a country that is steeped in bloodshed and a violent history that still resonates today against a stunning canvas of natural beauty.
Performances are of the highest quality and Renier plays the mentally challenged Mattis with a mixture of angst, slow-wittedness and over-excitement. “LadyGrey” is not a film to be viewed repeatedly; it is too downbeat and depressing for that. It is however a lovely film to look at and as such worth at least one viewing.
“LADYGREY” was released on April 26 via Digital HD and On Demand. This is a solid 3 star film for the performances alone and worthy of a look by those who appreciate cinematic beauty.