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Film review: Mister Johnson

Bruce Beresford, whose biggest claim to fame is as the director of the Oscar-winning films "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Tender Mercies," returns to the themes that seem to intrigue him most with "Mister Johnson."

Fans of the Australian director know Beresford's heart really seems to be in his films "The Fringe Dwellers" and "Breaker Morant," which are among his best, both exploring the impact of "civilization" on more "primitive" societies.

"Mister Johnson" is a welcome newcomer in the cycle.

The title character, played by Maynard Eziashi, hasn't simply embraced the British colonialism that has invaded his West African village, circa 1920. He has delusions of grandeur and considers himself an English gentleman, referring to Great Britain as "home" and generally living well beyond his means as he throws numerous parties for his friends. Naturally, he is scorned by the very Army officers he idolizes. And as he cheerfully repeats often the catch-phrases about impending progress that he hears from British officers, his neighbors consider him more than a little nuts.

Mister Johnson is the clerk for stiff Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), the Army officer assigned to build a road that will bring progress to this area of Nigeria. Johnson is eager to please, though he can't seem to get to work on time and is inefficient in his job. And Rudbeck, at first, seems to merely put up with him.

Eventually, the road budget runs out before the road is finished, and Johnson suggests they take the money from other budgets, with the intention of repaying it later. Rudbeck agrees. But when this bit of larceny is discovered, Johnson naturally takes the fall.

Meanwhile, Johnson has married and needs money, and the combination of events and his own inflated sense of self-worth thrusts him into a life of petty thievery that ultimately leads to tragedy.

Despite this seemingly grim story, there is a great deal of humor in "Mister Johnson," the kind of humor that comes out of the characters and therfore seems more real.

What makes Johnson such an interesting character is his seeming obliviousness to his crimes. Johnson sees nothing wrong with taking money from a cash register or owing everyone in the village, since he naively plans to pay it all back one day. And Eziashi plays him perfectly as naive, yet cunning, charming, yet buffoonish. It's a real tightrope act that could probably have slipped into caricature with a lesser actor. As it is, we care about Mister Johnson even while he's annoying. And we hope for him to acknowledge his weaknesses, even while we anticipate his downfall.

Also very good are Brosnan, whose aloof, stoic demeanor serves him well as the distant, yet sympathetic officer; Edward Woodward, as the racist, brutish shopkeeper who reluctantly admires Johnson; Femi Fatoba as the local Emir's representative, who opposes the road and prods Johnson into his life of crime; Bella Enahoro as Johnson's by-the-rules bride; and Beatie Edney as Rudbeck's sad, resigned wife.

"Mister Johnson" is rated PG for some violence, profanity, vulgarity, sex and brief nudity.