Monday, October 04, 2004

Story of an African Farm

With lots of rolypoly sheep as extras and, as witnesses, those splayfoot ratites, otherwise known as Boer chickens: ostriches, Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm has been filmed for the second time, writes Stephen Gray

Filming our great novel, The Story of an African Farm, one imagined would not be without hazards. As every reader since it was first published in 1883 knows, it was one of those Mid-Victorian classics caught up in its own coils of conscience, a kind of verbal quagmire out of which there was no getting up and getting on.

For scholars, it has come to be an early attempt to escape the imperial condition into the refreshingly postmodern. But for her publishers in the heart of Empire, at which valiant Olive Schreiner was the first to strike back, it was hardly rebellious: here was Africa, to them so exotic, picturesque, their colourful dreamland.

So that when South African audiences had a sneak preview of their historical marker in world literature on film in May this year, during the European Union Film Festival, it came as a consummate irony that it should be the entry of Schreiner’s natural enemy, the United Kingdom.

But still, over there, they recognise a rattling good story when they read one. Nor, seemingly, do they take umbrage at the book’s caricature of the most truly vile Brit imaginable.

He is a remittance man named Bonaparte Blenkins on the lam, whom Schreiner’s Karoo-dwellers are too naive to identify as your archetypal Cockney predator. On the prowl inland, how can he resist turning off to take gormless Tant’ Sannie, her helpless underage wards, the two daughters of a dead Englishman, and her hopelessly old German foreman, marooned in the milkbushes, for everything they’ve got? In fact, why not take them for all of their farm in Africa?

That is the brutal plot-line of the first part of this big, floppy novel, to which David Lister’s movie version sensibly restricts itself. One deeply isolated working farm, whitewashed for the cameras. A few takes on horseback for the great Armin Mueller-Stahl as a leathery Uncle Otto. Some snappy cart-rides in your basic costumes.

No old Cape capital at the one end, with its ships and Signal Hill, nor the overturned Diamond Fields making millions at the other. Just lots of rolypoly sheep as extras and, as witnesses, those splayfoot ratites, otherwise known as Boer chickens: ostriches. Filmed in shimmering colour, outside Laingsburg on a shoestring, and without any of the awesome veneration such classics sometimes induce. Keeping it free and easy.

Of course, after all his years of having to find work in Britain, this was the vehicle South African star Richard E Grant must have been waiting for. With a bulbous nose to be squeezed for a tot and his rat’s tail hair, he is out now to teach crocodiles to cry. He gives the bold comedy performance of a lifetime.

But Mueller-Stahl is one to give back what he gets. Those who remember fondly how Gordon Vorster, as the gentle Uncle Otto in the television serial of the 1970s, puttered his wonky way to a solemn death, will probably be affronted by this robust version. His “Valdor" (for little Waldo) alone is worth the price of a ticket. A note for purists, though, who will not like this departure from the book. His son here, spindly Waldo (Luke Gallant) with his sheep-shearing machine and all, is a saucy mixed-race lad. This suggests Uncle Otto must really have been up to some interesting no good, which even Schreiner would not have countenanced.

The rest of the cast are unknowns — Karin van der Laag as a chubby Sannie, Anneke Weidemann as a not too squeaky Em, with Kasha Kropinski as future star and feminist Lyndall.

Cope they all do, not only with the Calvinism and the colonialism and all the sheep-crap, but serenely with cameras as well. Up against the two greats of cinema acting, one is enjoyably roused to cheer them on in able support.

The performance I saw was no private showing, but a packed-out public one. I found myself not the only person actually voicing my good riddance to the appalling Grant character — as he exited up the dirt road, pursued by ostriches. And I felt a bit wobbly throughout, recognising the gorgeousness of all our funny, fabulous, vigorous locals. Nor was I the only one at the end actually to applaud a movie.

Besides much critical work on Schreiner in the context of South African literature, Stephen Gray wrote Schreiner: A One-Woman Play (1983)