A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA *** . Directed by Bruce Beresford. Screenplay, William Boyd, based on his novel. Photography, Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editing, Jim Clark. Production design, Herbert Pinter. Cast: Colin Friels, Sean Connery, John Lithgow, Diana Riggs, Sarah-Jane Fenton, Louis Gossett Jr., Maynard Eziashi, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. A Gramercy release. 93 min. Rated R. (Language, sex)
Once upon a time, films set in colonies generally hewed to Rudyard Kipling's lines: "Take up the White Man's burden/ Send forth the best ye breed/ Go, bind your sons to exile/ To serve your captives' need."
With notable exceptions, the white overlords, even when insensitive by today's standards, were benevolent, paternalistic and enlightening. Films of the post-colonial period however, have taken the more balanced view of mixed good and bad whites, and mostly good natives. And more recent works have flipped around the old formula into "bad whites and good locals."
Had "A Good Man in Africa" stuck to the latter category, it would have been less disconcerting and more successful with the critics. But it does not fit that comfortable post-modern revisionism.
Beautifully photographed, it is directed by the talented, Australian-born Bruce Beresford who in his youth spent two years in East Nigeria and later made admirable films unrestricted by formulas or genres: "The Getting of Wisdom," "Tender Mercies," "The Fringe Dwellers," "Crimes of the Heart," Driving Miss Daisy," the Arican "Mister Johnson ," "Black Robe."
"A Good Man," set in a fictitious West African nation "shortly after independence" and -- since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre is mentioned -- in recent times, is a decidedly politically incorrect movie, a take-no-sides, take-no-prisoners satire that mixes black humor, comedy of manners and physical farce.
The serious level of the film corresponds to what Han Suyin wrote in 1965:
"Exploitation and oppression is not a matter of race. It is the system, the apparatus of world-wide brigandage called imperialism, which made the Powers behave the way they did. I have no illusions on this score, nor do I believe that any Asian nation or African nation, in the same state of dominance, and with the same system of colonial profit-amassing and plunder, would have behaved otherwise."
Nary a character is spared. All deliver elephant-broad but fittingly good performances. At the epicenter is smarmy civil servant Morgan Leafy (Friels), the First Secretary of Britain's High Commissioner Fanshawe (Lithgow). Though Leafy can't wait to get out of this posting, he compensates with sex, booze and the perks of authority.
Fanshawe is a caricature, the ultimate diplomatic prig who's been in a succession of Third World countries, never understanding a thing, also wanting out and dreaming of a knighthood. Chloe (Rigg) is his sex-starved wife and his recently jilted daughter Priscilla ( Fenton) is equally man-hungry.
Professor Adekunle (Gossett, with the wrong accent) is the leading candidate in the coming Presidential elections. Imperial, shrewd and self-assured, this venal opportunist has an immense modern office, an eye-popping, palatial residence, a retinue of goons. It all cries out "Godfather." His Caucasian wife Celia is also sex-oriented, but there's a catch to this.
All the players in this game are corrupt, some in order to survive, others out of habit, greed or ambition. And as oil has been found in Kinjanja, the British want to lay their hands on it while Adekunle manipulates them.
There is, happily, a Good Man, medical doctor Murray, a man of kindness, integrity, sharp eye and tongue, a realist who observes but does not mingle. His role is smallish but crucial especially as he has a key vote in a real-estate deal. Sean Connery plays him with wonderfully assertive and ironical presence.
Plots and subplots that keep adding to the characters' portrayals involve bribes, sex, a venereal disease alert, superstition, blackmail and as much more as can be packed into 93 minutes. The major crisis comes when lightning kills a maid at the entrance of the Commissioner's residence. By local rites she cannot be moved unless the powerful god Shango is propitiated -- and Fanshawe expects the visit of the Duchess of Riffle (42d in line to the throne), a swiller of gin-and-tonics and perhaps a help to Fanshawe's knighthood.
Trepidating Fanshawe orders Leafy to solve the problem, which he tries to do in laughable ways. In many respects, bumbling Leafy is a kind of rotten version of P.G.Wodehouse's decent and innocent Bertie Wooster. But lacking a Jeeves to pilot him , he goes from mess to mess.
Since this picture goes against our habitual movie expectations and conditioned reflexes, a bit of bewilderment among some viewers is natural. The last section is unconvincing, with silly moves and improbable attempts to wrap things up and add moralizing pathos. But until then it is quite amusingly cynical and paradoxically suffused with the magic of Africa.