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The ghosts of South Africa’s brutal past haunt this moody contemporary thriller, a left-field competition contender for the Golden Bear in Berlin this week. Returning from long European exile to the country of her birth, director and co-writer Pia Marais allows the political subtext to seep through a slow-burn character study of a single mother with a guilty secret.
As in her previous two Europe-shot features, Marais concentrates on a single female protagonist suffering a heavy psychological crisis. While this polished international co-production is her most accomplished work yet, it feels like an ambitious misfire, especially in its latter stages. But the stunning South African scenery, so rarely seen on the big screen, and evergreen political back story may prove attractive to discerning overseas viewers if marketed right.
We first meet Layla (Rayna Campbell) as she applies for a post at a Johannesburg security company who run polygraph tests for suspicious employers. Hired and dispatched at short notice to work at a faraway casino resort, she cannot find a willing child-minder so is forced to take her young son Kane (Rapule Hendricks) with her. A random late-night accident on a lonely outback highway ends with both mother and child agreeing to keep a terrible secret. But Layla’s web of lies starts to unravel when she becomes too close to one of her interviewees, Eugene (August Diehl).
Layla Fourie starts strongly, promising a multi-layered thriller about truth and lies, with a subtle undercurrent of racial and sexual tension. There are echoes in this set-up of Ray Lawrence’s modern Australian classic Lantana and South African author JM Coetzee’s prize-winning novel Disgrace. Bachar Khalife’s discordant, minimal, ambient score helps amplify a sense of creeping dread and noir-ish paranoia.
Around the midway point, however, Layla Fourie reveals its hand as a fairly conventional suspense drama. The stiff performances, which initially feel like an artful affectation, start to seem merely clumsy. The oddly stilted dialogue betrays the screenwriters as non-native English speakers, just as the off-key accents expose the leads as non-native South Africans: Campbell is British, Diehl Austrian.
After getting bogged down in illogical twists and implausible coincidences, the film’s open-ended resolution comes as an anticlimax. Along the way, Marais poses interesting questions about the lingering legacy of distrust, duplicity and treachery left behind by South Africa’s apartheid era. But she ultimately does not provide us with any persuasive answers. Quality ingredients, just a little undercooked.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival
Production companies: Dv8 Films, Spier Films, Topkapi Films, Cinema Defacto, WDR, Arte
Producers: Claudia Steffen, Christoph Friedel
Cast: Rayna Campbell, August Diehl, Rapule Hendricks, Terry Norton
Director: Pia Marais
Screenwriters: Horst Markgraf, Pia Marais
Cinematographer: Andre Chemetoff
Editors: Chris Teerink, Mona Brauer
Music: Bachar Khalife
Sales company: The Match Factory
Rating TBC, 105 minutes
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