Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A World Apart is an impressive drama about the effect on one family of South Africa's police crackdown on the outlawed African National Congress, the political party that challenged the government's all-white rule. Although the specifics are unique to the anti-apartheid movement, the movie stresses the experience of living in a family that the majority has condemned as political traitors.
Dissident African National Congress member Gus Roth (Jeroen Krabbé) has to flee South Africa when the government puts police-state policies into effect: Anti-apartheid activists (or anyone at all) can be seized without warrant and held for 90 days without being charged with a crime. Gus' wife Diana (Barbara Hershey) keeps active in ANC affairs while her young teen daughter Molly (Jodhi May) is ostracized at school; she's cut off from her best friend Yvonne (Nadine Chalmers) because her conservative parents condemn the Roths as Communists. Diana is eventually arrested under the 90 days act and pressured to cooperate with the authorities. Diana's jailers move her about to keep her family from visiting her, and although she doesn't give in, she falls into a deep depression. The authorities stress their respect for women while telling her she'll never be set free.
Molly resents being kept in the dark, not realizing that her mother has also had no contact with Gus; she visits with the maid's brother, who is arrested and murdered by the South African security police. Finally, Diana's 90 days run out but the authorities have an insidious surprise for her: As soon as she's released, she's re-arrested under the same blanket police-power law ... the police reserve the right to kill blacks and imprison white dissidents indefinitely.
There were several prominent anti-apartheid dramas made in the eighties, all of them flawed. Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom is supposedly about a black martyr to the cause of freedom, but it turns out to be concerned with the ethical problems faced by a white member of the press. The general assumption has always been that movies about political problems in the third world need to be 'filtered' through Anglo experiences to be accepted by the mass audience.
Chris Menges' A World Apart is technically in the same category, for it stays firmly with the story of white activists and the price they paid for their conscientious dissent against the oppressive South African regime. The true events depicted are from 1963 and the subject became fit for direct appraisal in movies more or less 25 years later. That doesn't speak well for mainstream cinema, as 'radical' docus about Nazi-like oppression of native populations in Africa and South America have been made (and suppressed) since the political upheavals began. One can almost see a production executive arguing that 1988 is the time for a breakthrough apartheid picture, because of Paul Simon's hit song Diamonds in the Soles of Her Shoes. Better late than never doesn't help the people actually in the middle of these freedom movements. Casual viewers may not notice a title stating that the real-life heroine of A World Apart, even though she's last seen in an uplifting, fists-skyward scene of solidarity, was assassinated twenty years later.
But A World Apart is an excellent movie for 2005. It shows how a political majority can easily turn a democracy into a totalitiarian police state with just a few 'security measures.' The social standing, well-being and family integrity of the Roths are mercilessly destroyed when the government labels them terrorists for criticizing the government and attending meetings of dissident groups.
A World Apart tells the story through young Molly Roth, the curious and sensitive daughter who witnesses and experiences the pain of being an outcast for her parents' politics. Gus and Diana Roth are committed and intelligent people; Gus has fled the country just in time to avoid being imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and others who ended up behind bars for upwards of 30 years. As she's not directly involved, Diana thinks she may escape arrest, but the police thugs have carte blanche to arrest whosoever they choose. The 90-day Detention Act doesn't mention anything about psychological torture but Diana is expected to name names and cooperate. The security police play good-cop bad-cop games and gravely underestimate Diana's willpower. To resume contact with her family she eventually has to put her health at risk; the cops are afraid of the bad publicity that would result if a white woman were to die while in 'protective detention.'
Since so much of the movie follows young Molly's experience, the script only sketches the nature of apartheid in small details. A black man hit on the street is ignored by white passers-by who do not want to get involved. Protective adults do not allow Molly to walk alone in the city, but she's completely safe in a black township. When her parents are arrested, Molly is understandably ostracized by her schoolgirl peers, and the bigoted parents of her best friend consider her a fair target for their contempt and anger. Molly's school principal moves to assure her physical safety, but Molly wisely does not respond to her invitation to talk about what's happening at home. Molly has plenty of reason to be tight-lipped: Security officials treat the Roths like vermin, as if hoping for the day when the law will allow executions for dissent.
A World Apart is a superior production in every respect. Chris Menges, more often a highly-regarded cinematographer, has a keen eye for drama and detail and handles his cast expertly. Dramatic scenes are balanced with believable details of Molly's home life at the dinner table. The subordinate class status afforded blacks is shown but not driven home as a surprising outrage -- when a 13 year-old girl orders a butler around or the police conduct armed assaults on black townships, it's just business as usual. What's driven home is that oppressive authorities, even when obeying the letter of the law, use the law to further their own agendas. The abuse aimed at Diana Roth clearly exceeds the limits granted by the Detention Act, but the cops flaunt their own unjust cruelty in hopes of breaking down Diana's will to resist. This kind of thing happens wherever unjust laws are tolerated.
Barbara Hershey began as a movie actress in 1970 but not until the time of A World Apart did she prove herself a world-class talent. This writer would be pleased if Warners were to release another powerful Hershey film called Shy People, especially if its longer cut were to be restored. This was Jodhi May's first film (at age 13) and she singlehandedly brings the story to life. Audiences are probably much more familiar with her as the young Alice Munro of
Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans four years later. The policemen-tormentors of Diana Roth are played by an excellent array of talent. Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is a sophisticated anti-sedition agent, while David Suchet plays a much more sinister role as the 'good cop' trying to penetrate Diana's emotional defenses.
Fans of Tim Roth will be shortchanged - he's a co-worker and friend of Diana's family but has ended up as a peripheral presence.
The names were changed for the movie, as the real family name was Slovo. The autobiographical script was written by Shawn Slovo.
MGM's DVD of A World Apart presents the English production in a handsome enhanced transfer with a clear audio track - Chubby Checker twist records are used to set the period among the South African schoolgirls. The okay package design tries to lessen the film's political stance by stressing that its events are happening in a remote time and place. Gus Roth is identified as a Communist, which might be true. In the film we only hear it as an insult leveled at him by his bigoted neighbors.
The flaky cover tagline is "In a nation divided, one family must fight to stay together." Nobody 'fights to stay together' in A World Apart; it's about people suffering for their political beliefs. If Diana only wanted to keep her family intact, as her jailers urge her to do, she could cut a deal. That's like labeling Schindler's List with the line, "In a time of bad manners, one ethnic group must find help where it can."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A World Apart rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2005
A note from reader Kyu Hyun Kim, 9.25.05: "Dear Mr. Erickson, I am prompted to write a letter of thanks for your forceful review of A World Apart, a singularly excellent film, dare I say the exception, among a group of well-meaning but seriously troubled sub-sub-genre of anti-apartheid mainstream "thrillers." A Dry White Season, Cry Freedom, etc.) I still remember that when the film came out in the theater, more than one newspaper reviewer (including one at USA Today, as I recall) summoned the reader's attention to the no doubt important fact that the filmmakers failed to explicitly state that Ruth First (the real-life activist played by Barbara Hershey) was a card-carrying Communist Party member. It was as if they were insinuating A World Apart was an untrustworthy propaganda film by accusing the filmmakers of deliberately obscuring First and her husband Joe Slovo's affiliation with the Communist Party. I remember thinking at the time, what's wrong with these people? Twenty years later... need I go on?
At any rate, here's my thank you for not pulling your punches." -- Kyu Hyun Kim, Associate Professor of Japanese History, University of California, Davis
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson