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A trigger-happy bloodbath in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde or Natural Born Killers, this gritty South African crime thriller has a long and troubled history. Writer-director Andrew Worsdale conceived it almost 30 years ago, shortly before his cultish 1987 debut feature, Shot Down, was banned by the apartheid-era regime for having “no artistic merit whatsoever.” Worsdale became an actor, putting together various productions of Durban Poison over the decades, but none ever came to fruition. Only now has he finally stepped behind the camera again to realize his dream project.
Durban Poison stars screen debutante Cara Roberts as Joline, a vulnerable young woman who works as a prostitute on the Durban docks. Her life takes a fateful turn when she meets charismatic minor hoodlum Piet, played by Brandon Auret, best known internationally for his roles in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Elysium. The pair’s stormy relationship soon progresses to drug dealing, robbery and murder. Already a festival prizewinner in South Africa, Worsdale’s lowlife love story screens at the Dubai International Film Festival this week, where it is eligible in the Muhr Asia/Africa Awards category. But this trite, overfamiliar walk on the wild side seems unlikely to make much noise outside domestic and festival circles.
Named after a globally renowned strain of South African marijuana, Durban Poison is told in a salty mix of English and slang-heavy Afrikaans. The plot was inspired by the locally notorious case of Charmaine Phillips and Pieter Grundlingh, who killed four people in the early 1980s. The 19-year-old Phillips admitted responsibility, a false claim that she later revealed was part of a pre-agreed pact to save Grundlingh from the death penalty. He confessed and was hanged anyway. Phillips only learned of this confession years after, and applied to the late Nelson Mandela for clemency. She was released on parole in 2004 after almost two decades behind bars.
Told in flashback and structured as a partial road movie, Worsdale’s film reshuffles the true story, changing names and contriving a more dramatic finale. The subject matter is hardly original, though there is exotic appeal for non-domestic audiences in seeing a South African drama set among the white underclass, with no hint of racial politics. Sadly that novelty soon wears pretty thin under the steady grind of narrative cliche and leaden pacing. The characters are one-dimensional, the performances wooden and much of the dialog woefully clunky. The rudimentary script offers no psychological or social motivation for the crimes, failing to generate the dramatic tension and romantic chemistry that the story demands.
In all fairness, Roberts performs modestly well in her debut feature, her inexperience often seeming refreshingly naturalistic compared to the hammy overacting of her more seasoned co-stars. The final twist reframes all that has gone before, even if it feels more like a gentle poke rather than a knockout punch. Ultimately, Durban Poison is a disappointing trip, delivering just a mild high instead of mind-blowing intensity. It is easy to see why Worsdale had so much trouble raising interest in such a hackneyed yarn, but hard to understand why he persisted so long.
Production company: Karoo Film Company
Producers: Carmel Nayanah, Deon Meyer, Diony Kempen
Cast: Brandon Auret, Cara Roberts, Gys De Villiers, Marcel Van Heerden
Director: Andrew Worsdale
Writer: Andrew Worsdale
Cinematographer: William Collinson
Editors: Byron Davis, Ronelle Loots
Composer: Jim Neversink
Sales company: Karoo Film Company
Unrated, 94 minutes
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