EmptyBERLIN -- "Goodbye Banfana" is yet another movie about the revolution against South Africa's brutal apartheid regime told from a white man's point of view. This time it is Nelson Mandela's warden, during much of the activist's 27 years in prison, who receives the star treatment in Bille August's film. At the very least, one would expect this white protagonist to bear witness to a change in thinking among many whites about a new South Africa. Even here, though, those key scenes are missing in a script August wrote with Greg Latter.
This French/German/Belgian/Italian/South African co-production will benefit from a continuing worldwide fascination with Mandela's story, even if he is only a supporting player here. Since the sincere but dramatically flaccid story doesn't pack much punch, theatrical engagements will be short.
Dennis Haysbert does manage to capture the dignity and steadfastness Mandela exhibited during his long ordeal. But he can only hint at the charisma and savvy that would change a white man's closed mind. Meanwhile, Joseph Fiennes as warden James Gregory is perhaps too smart for the fairly uneducated man he plays: He seems too sharp to be saying and doing many of the things he does.
Gregory's only ambition is to be an excellent prison warden, move up in the system and support a wife, Gloria (Diane Kruger), whose need for material goods and status knows no bounds.
He arrives with his wife and two children at the notorious Robben Island prison in 1968, where one quirk stands him in good stead. Growing up on a lonely farm where his only playmate was a black boy, Gregory became fluent in the Xhosa language. So a security czar assigns him to guard Mandela and his comrades so Gregory can be "a window into their soul -- if they have a soul."
The movie is pretty heavy-handed in the early going with all the whites spouting racist doggerel. Mrs. Gregory even gets to affirm that the separation of whites from blacks is "God's way."
But in the first half of the movie Mandela himself is little more than a rumor. From Gregory's brief encounters with him, remarkably, he starts to change his mind about apartheid. How does this happen? What does he see, or what Nelson tell him, that he doesn't already know about the racist white regime? That blacks are mistreated everywhere but especially in prison? That the government's labeling of all black activists as "communist" is pure cynical spin?
Mandela does tell him to go read the African National Congress' Freedom Charter, a document few whites have read since it is banned literature. But would that document really be such an eye-opener, especially since the ANC had by then abandoned its non-violent ways?
The film never gets to the heart of what it should be about -- the turning of a man's heart and mind. Instead, much time is taken up with petty jealousies and feuds within the white colony of penal authorities and their wives. And Mrs. Gregory is always good for a harangue to her husband about not jeopardizing the family's security by doing anything "foolish."
When a small kindness toward Mrs. Mandela (Faith Ndukwana) by Gregory gets blown out of proportion and his family's life becomes untenable on the island, he demands a transfer. Soon enough, Mandela also is transferred away from the island for fear he may be assassinated. Gregory is ordered to again act as his warden, a job that increasingly looks like that of a valet.
The second half of the movie brings the two men into more contact, yet nothing significant ever happens between them. Perhaps nothing ever did. Gregory, a man with some compassion after all, simply came to his senses when he saw that Nelson Mandela was no mad terrorist. Whatever the case, there is little here to justify a two-hour movie, even with some forced intrigue about threats to Gregory's children and a family tragedy that mirrors one of Mandela's own.
Production values are sharp as August crew makes good use of Robben Island and other actual locations where the story took place. But sentimentality and even sometimes triviality undermine this bizarre buddy film.
An X Filme Creative Pool in association with Arsam International/Banana Films with Future Films/Marmont Film Production/Film Afrika
Director: Bille August
Writers: Greg Latter, Bille August
Producers: Jean-Luc van Damme, Ilann Girard, Andro Steinborn
Executive producers: Kami Naghdi, Michael Dounaev, Jimmy de Brabant, Kwesi Dickson
Director of photography: Robert Fraisse
Production designer: Tom Hannam
Music: Dario Marianelli, Johnny Clegg
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editor: Herve Schneid
James Gregory: Joseph Fiennes
Nelson Mandela: Dennis Haysbert
Gloria Gregory: Diane Kruger
Brent: Shiloh Henderson, Tyron Keogh
Natasha: Megan Smith, Jessica Manuel
Winnie Mandela: Faith Ndukwana
Zindzi Mandela: Terry Pheto
No MPAA rating, running time 119 minutes.