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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Mister Johnson: The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Mister Johnson: The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // PG-13 // September 22, 2015 // Region A
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Review by Matt Hinrichs | posted September 18, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Director Bruce Beresford parlayed his success with the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy into 1990's Mister Johnson, a wispy yet beautifully mounted drama set in an early 20th century Africa slowly losing its traditions to greedy British colonialists. This (somewhat justly) forgotten film must have been a personal favorite of Beresford's, coming along as a "Director Approved" Criterion Collection edition alongside his better-known 1980 drama Breaker Morant.

Mister Johnson revolves around its indelible title character, an eager-to-please Nigerian clerk assisting in British efforts to colonize the area in 1923. Cheerfully strolling through the bush with natty three-piece suit and shiny black shoes, Mr. Johnson's utter devotion to the British way of living alienates his fellow countrymen. In his puppy dog-like enthusiasm to help a British surveyor build a road bridging two remote villages, Mr. Johnson remains blissfully unaware that the white men he so adores are using him for their own means. It's a tricky role which easily could have come across as a demeaning stereotype, yet newcomer Maynard Eziashi molds the character into a completely guileless, earnest creation. The viewer ends up rooting for him, and feeling empathy when his trajectory goes on a tragic turn for the worse.

Filmed on location in the wilds of Nigeria (the first non-native, non-documentary movie shot there), Mister Johnson goes the extra mile to create a sense of time and place. The well-mounted production makes it obvious that Beresford and producer Michael Fitzgerald went to extraordinary lengths to adapt Joyce Cary's 1939 novel into a stirring think-piece on the limits of devotion and, ultimately, being true to one's self. In the end, however, I found it weirdly distant. One reason: the underdeveloped relationship between Johnson and his surveyor boss, Harry Rudbeck. Given a solid characterization by Pierce Brosnan, Rudbeck cultivates a professional, arms-length friendship with Mr. Johnson. He even forgoes some of his professional ethics for Mr. Johnson, agreeing to Johnson's idea of moving around funds to get the road construction completed. After Johnson inevitably faces a harsh punishment, the movie gives hardly any indication of Rudbeck's culpability in the crime - if it's there, it's hidden deep below Brosnan's stiff-upper-lip reserve.

Although excellently crafted and performed throughout, contemporary viewers of Mister Johnson might also notice the absence of fully developed characters of color aside from Mr. Johnson. While it likely came about as a result of faithfully adapting the source novel, it bugged me that the only major black character in a movie set in Africa was Mr. Johnson. He is seen throughout dealing with other Africans, including Bella Enahoro as his skeptical young bride, Bamu, and Femi Fatoba as a suspicious village high priest who uses Mr. Johnson's insider status to gain access to Rudbeck's letters. All of these characters are rather bloodless and underwritten, however, especially when compared with Edward Woodward as the brutish shopkeeper who hires on Mr. Johnson, post-scandal, and Beatie Edney as Rudbeck's inconvenienced wife, Celia. These people represent the world Mr. Johnson aspires to be part of - but part of me wanted to know more about the world he was fated to stay in, as well.


Note: images are from promotional sources and do not reflect the quality of the Blu Ray under review.

The Blu-ray:


Video

Criterion's director-approved edition of Mister Johnson has the film handsomely presented in a preferred aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (a slight crop from the 1.66:1 OAR). As overseen by Beresford, the color balance tends toward golden-accented hues evocative of the African veldt. Film grain is kept to a minimum, in a transfer that accents the textural qualities of skin, fabric and other surfaces. Not knowing if this version is faithful to the 1990 theatrical or 1997 DVD editions, I can tell you this picture looks fantastic, nevertheless - a pristine image that conveys the dusty, faraway atmosphere the director was aiming for.

Audio

The stereo soundtrack also got a 24-bit remastering directly from the 35mm magnetic tracks. It's a clean, depth-filled track made as pristine-sounding as possible, yet the wide loudness differences between the quiet dialogue and the blaring music/sound effects will leave many fiddling with their remotes.

Extras

A quartet of cast and crew interviews, newly filmed in 2015, form the bulk of Mister Johnson's extras. Director Bruce Beresford (15:32), producer Michael Fitzgerald (11:13), and actors Maynard Eziash (12:10) and Pierce Brosnan (8:59) share their positive experiences with the film. The interviews are actually more fascinating than the movie itself, with all four men gratefully recounting the unusual circumstances that led to this one-of-a-kind production. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer (3:05). The package's fold-out booklet contains an essay by British Film Studies professor Neil Sinyard, along with credits and notes on the transfer.

Final Thoughts

Mister Johnson is director Bruce Beresford's lovingly crafted, curiously flat drama of clashing ideals in Colonialist Africa. Criterion's edition will probably help get this passion project the appreciative audience it didn't get in 1990, although I can't see too many people enjoying this vaguely-done film more than once. If only for actor Maynard Eziashi's vitality in the title role, rent it.


Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.

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