Mister Johnson

Directed by Bruce Beresford. Starring Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan, Edward Woodward, Beatie Edney, Bella Enahoro. (1991)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 17, 1991

Director Beresford has a way with actors. Many of them win Oscars under his guidance (Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies). He also has a way with stereotypes. As with Driving Miss Daisy, the racial stereotypes presented are somewhat cliched, though Mister Johnson's setting in British colonial Africa in the 1920s makes the portraits understandable. Based on a popular 1930s novel by Joyce Cary, it tells the story of a mission-educated young native in a remote area of British West Africa, Mister Johnson (Eziashi). He's an upwardly mobile clerk who loves all things British. He idolizes his employer, the rather dull British civil servant Rudbeck (Brosnan) who serves as the government's district officer. Johnson is quick, resourceful and impulsive. Thus, things like petty theft and lying, embezzlement, creative bookkeeping and deceit don't stand in the way of obtaining what he wants, when he wants. He's a gussied up noble savage trying to stay solvent. Childlike, scheming and underhanded, he's a caricature of racial stereotyping. But there's also a larger story here that Beresford occasionally touches on but never clearly articulates. And that's the story of the conflict between nature and civilization, between resourcefulness and bureaucracy, between dull ordinariness and zestful enthusiasm. What saves this movie is newcomer Eziashi's performance which is so dynamic and exuberant that you tend to forget the simplicfications involved and instead see a full-bodied portrait of an individual. It's almost a picaresque tale about a loyal British subject whose only misfortune was being born in Africa. Mister Johnson maintains a comic tone throughout until it turns tragic at the end, a strategy which allows the audience to root for the resilient hero yet also feel remorseful about the consequences of his actions. Mister Johnson suffers from a lack of focus, though the performances draw your attention throughout.
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