The Journey of August King
1995, PG-13, 91 min. Directed by John Duigan. Starring Jason Patric, Thandie Newton, Larry Drake, Sam Waterston.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 17, 1996
August King is a young, white, widowed farmer who lives alone in the mountains of North Carolina in the early decades of the 19th century. One day, while leading his wagon and newly purchased cow and pig over the region's heavily traversed farm-to-market road, August King's journey begins. More a spiritual journey than a physical journey, August (Patric) is about to emerge from the shell of solitude he's suffered since his wife died, and acknowledge his accountability toward the world that surrounds him. Stopping to refresh himself at a creek, August is startled by the sudden vision of a young, black girl (Newton) rising abruptly from the water for air. Clearly, she is a runaway slave, which explains all the hunting commotion echoing through the woods. Although August points her north, he rebuffs her request for further assistance. Later, August discovers that she and another slave have escaped from the area's richest landowner, Olaf Singletary (Drake), who has legions of hunters combing the mountain looking for his runaway property. Drake plays Singletary as a man possessed -- loathsomely impassioned yet pathetically obsessive. The reasons for his desire to reclaim the girl, Annalees, are hardly subtle though pathologically desperate. Later, when Annalees stumbles into August's camp, he decides to allow her safe cover for the night. One scare leads to the next, and soon August is providing the girl with safe passage across the mountain, though the personal price he pays for his actions becomes increasingly dear. But, by the time he's sent north a refreshed Annalees (garbed in his dead wife's garments) and has been forcibly divested of all his worldly possessions, August re-enters the kingdom of humanity. This is his journey. Jason Patric gracefully relates the character's internal struggle, though he cannot disguise the fact that this story progresses via imperceptible personal growth. Newton's characterization of Annalees follows on the heels of her luminous portrayal of Thomas Jefferson's slave girl/love interest, Sally Hemmings, in Jefferson in Paris, so that this time out the role seems a slavish retread. The movie does reteam Newton with English director John Duigan, who “discovered” her in the Australian film Flirting. The Journey of August King, which is based on the 1971 novel by John Ehle (who also penned the film script), leaves several practical questions unanswered during its telling and often trods when you would prefer that it soar. Still, somewhere in the movie's dense thicket of North Carolina woodland, there is a transcendent story about the individual roads we take to freedom.