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THE UGLY BRITON

Bruce Beresford, the Australian-born filmmaker who specializes in cultural collisions, has been very quiet since Driving Miss Daisy dominated Oscar night a couple of years back. Those who saw Rich in Love, the only movie he's made since then, are in pretty select company. More likely you remember this director for Tender Mercies, and that was ten years ago.

Unfortunately, A Good Man in Africa is unlikely to restore Beresford's reputation as one of the planet's leading lights. Perhaps huge chunks of this spoof pitting old-line British embassy twits against Third World opportunists cover the editing-room floor. Maybe some crucial scenes didn't get shot at all. In any event, Beresford's faulty narrative may have you scratching your head.

Too bad. Novelist William Boyd, who also wrote the screenplay, is one of the few hot tickets these days in British fiction: His work combines the satirical punch of Evelyn Waugh with the dark, moral ruminations of Graham Greene, and he's as well traveled as either of them. In scattered places, the film comes close to what it aspires to be--a black comedy about contemporary Africa in flux, fueled in equal parts by the lofty presumptions of British diplomats clinging to the vestiges of Empire and the scams of a new-wave African leader who's yanking everyone's chain for his own benefit.

The one "good man" in the mix is a flinty Scottish doctor named Murray, whose golf game is as pure as his heart. If you were casting the part, who would you try to get? Right. Sturdy Sean Connery.

But neither Connery's momentary grandeur nor Boyd's wit can quite carry the day. Beresford meanders all over the veld. The script stutters. In the end, we're not sure at all how the story's questionable hero, a young diplomat, has been so quickly transformed from a cynical buffoon into a dedicated servant of the people. We only know that we've had some fun along the way watching one culture crash into another.

The title refers to the Connery character, but the protagonist is actually one Morgan Leafy (Colin Friels), a midlevel British functionary who's getting jaded fast. Hung out to dry in the backwater of a fictional, freshly minted West African nation called Kinjanja, he's taken refuge in booze and women. A spineless sort with one of those featureless English faces, young Leafy can harangue the poor African kid hanging his Christmas decorations one moment, then grovel before Fanshawe, the supercilious high commissioner (John Lithgow is perfectly odious) the next. Furnished with a concubine he puts up in a squalid flat and a bottomless supply of gin, Leafy's a moral bankrupt rotting in the African sun, just waiting for the end.

This may not sound very funny, but that Waugh touch in writer Boyd sometimes serves him well. As in 1991's underrated Mister Johnson, another African story that marked the first collaboration of Boyd and Beresford, there's an element of absurdity in Good Man that buoys it up. And when Professor Sam Adekunie (wonderful Louis Gossett Jr.), the conniving president of the brand-new republic, starts pulling strings and twisting arms, poor, bungling Leafy cannot help falling into his traps. Connery's stainless doctor stands above it all, of course. But the movie doesn't really give us enough of Murray to matter: He's an all-but-absent hero.

Meanwhile, those looking for some heroic vision of the New Africa itself won't find it here. Like Greene before him, Boyd is a kind of subversive romantic, so the squalor and corruption he shows us are just as powerful among the Kinjanjans as they are among the English. Between the white man's burden and the black man's avarice, there's not a lot to admire here among the principals' principles.

There are some other things to chuckle at. Just as an obscure English duchess ("42nd in line to the throne!" the ambitious Fanshawe burbles) is about to arrive on a state visit, an embassy maid is struck and killed by lightning ("Too, too ghastly!"). But the locals refuse to remove the body from its prominent spot on the driveway because they fear retribution from Shanga, the god of the skies. This event and Leafy's ill-advised philandering provoke the movie's main comic crises. Waugh's ghost must be cackling in the wings.

But when Good Man returns to the straight and narrow with Leafy's startling conversion, the twist is pretty hard to swallow. The man's supposed role model has remained a pretty murky figure all movie long, and we never believe Leafy has it in him to change. As a lampoon of seamy statecraft, A Good Man in Africa works pretty well. As an exaltation of actual goodness (and as narrative), it could use some major industrial development.

 
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