South Africa is racial battleground. The wounds of the apartheid era and the institutional prejudice continue to affect the country.
Writer/director Oliver Hermanus uses this tension to fuel his latest film, The Endless River, a melancholic race drama set in the Western Cape of South Africa. French Ex-pat Gilles’ (Nicolas Duvauchelle) wife and two children are murdered in a horrendous home invasion. Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) a young waitress, whose husband Percy (Clayton Everston) has just been released from a four year stint in jail, is killed shortly after his release. Finding solace in their shared grief, Gilles and Tiny begin a strained and unexpected relationship.
Hermanus portrays violence in the film with operatic finesse. In the midst of the disturbing home invasion, the swelling score extinguishes the sickening sounds of the acts. Hermanus needs the audience to be able to acknowledge the heinous acts and move headlong into Gilles’ grief spiral. Nicolas Duvauchelle’s portrayal of Gilles outwardly looks to challenge the status quo; you can empathise that he demands vengeful satisfaction. At the heights of his grief, he’s raw and the decorum to mask his feelings is ripped away to reveal a deeply prejudiced man. There are several powerful scenes where Gilles challenges the police in the town to be doing more. The older silent white police captain observes younger black officers facilitate discussion with Gilles and the entire time there’s a ruthless edge to the way he interacts. The older white officer empathises with Gilles, the younger black officers change their posture because they can feel the hostility.
Tiny too, who looks to be of South American descent lives a modest life, with her acid tongued religious mother Mona (performed beautifully by Denise Newman). Crystal-Donna Roberts plays Tiny like a sponge; desperate to accomodate the people around her. Roberts’ though is able to contrast that accomodation by conveying volumes, with even a minor glint in her big expressive eyes.
During his introduction to the film at the Sydney Film Festival Hermanus said that The Endless River is a film about the experience of coloured people (not necessarily of African descent) in South Africa.
The flagship scene of the film enunciates this in such a sharp economical way. Towards the end of the film there’s a moment where Tiny and Gilles are in a night club. The music is pulsating and the multi-coloured lines bring the dark room to life. Gilles is briefly interrupted by a club goer asking a question and Tiny is isolated. In the beating roar of the house beats she gets a second of quiet. The actor winds you toward Tiny as she scrutinises the room. She beings to look around and she realises that the new crowd she’s surrounded by is exclusively white. Instantly you can feel her discomfort, her shame and self-consciousness.
The Endless River is a battle of perceptions, of worlds clashing and impulses for vengeance. The opening Western aesthetic styling’s, are realised in the rest of the telling. The charge of the heightened moments of the film is arresting; but The Endless River‘s runtime outlives its pathos.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman