Image Entertainment // 2010 // 83 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 11th, 2011
A timeless story of friendship and hope.
"If you make me call you that once, I'll never call you anything else."
In apartheid-era South Africa, life isn't easy for restaurant employees Sam (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction) and Willie (Patrick Mofokeng, Invictus). They're treated badly and harassed by most of the white people living in the area; many simple pleasantries of life are little more than distant dreams for them. On one rainy day, Sam and Willie find themselves stuck at the restaurant with nothing to do save for hang out with a white teen named Hally (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), one of the few white people who treats them like human beings. The day begins pleasantly enough, but when Hally receives some bad news, he takes his rage out on his friends in a horrific manner. Is there any hope of repairing the sudden rift between these unlikely friends?
Adapting a stage play for the big screen is always a tricky endeavor. For one thing, there's the matter of toning down the built-in "theatricality" of many plays and reworking the material to the more natural rhythms of cinema. Additionally (and even more important), there's always some pressure to find ways to "open up" the material so that something which was designed for the confines of the stage can feel like a proper movie. The latter seems to be of particular importance to Master Harold...and the Boys director Lonny Price, who played the role of Hally in the original stage production of Athol Fugard's critically acclaimed work. The opening scenes of the film go out of their way to establish a sweeping sense of place, with lavish long shots observing the South African landscape within which this intimate drama is occurring.
Additionally, individuals only referred to in the play have been transformed into actual characters in the film version. The most prominent examples are Hally's mother and father; two people who seemed to have informed the young man's worldview and inconsistency. His mother is quiet, kind, gentle and intelligent; qualities which Hally tends to demonstrate by default. Even so, it's clear that some of his father's bitterness and bigotry has worked its way beneath the surface. There are little phrases or exceptionally harsh deliveries now and then which cause Sam to furrow his brow in concern -- just how deep does this ugliness run, and is there any sincerity behind it?
Honestly, the first half of the film is a little dull at times, as it meanders somewhat aimlessly while giving us an opportunity to get to know the characters. Certain scenes of bonding feel a little forced (the symbolically weighty kite-flying chat, for instance), and the film's need to revert to frequent flashbacks in order to prevent that dreaded "stagebound" feel from sinking in sometimes becomes a little distracting. Speaking of distracting things, the same can initially be said of Rhames' South African accent, which would have sounded artificial under any circumstances but sounds particularly so when contrasted with the voices of the numerous real-life South Africans the film is populated with. As a result, we spend too little time contemplating what he's saying and too much focusing on how he's saying it.
Intriguingly, Master Harold...and the Boys doesn't really begin to click until it buckles down, focuses in on its three characters, and simply accepts its stage roots. Once Hally lashes out at Sam and triggers a long, painful conversation, the film leaps from middling to riveting. The raw chemistry between Rhames and Highmore during this portion of the film is remarkable, and suddenly it becomes very easy to see Rhames as his character rather merely an American actor attempting to play a South African. This portion of the play handles race relations and the generational poison of bigotry in a manner that is less subtle than the early portions, but vastly more effective in this presentation since Price really seems to know what to do with it. I won't spoil what happens or why, but suffice it to say that it's intensely affecting, emotionally taxing stuff. The film concludes on a grace note of heartbreaking beauty; an exquisite finish so spot-on it even manages to overcome a few awkward closing lines of dialogue.
Master Harold...and the Boys arrives on Blu-ray sporting a rather handsome 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. A great deal of work has been put into the period design of the picture, and it's a classically elegant production which is lovely to behold. The muted, almost sepia-toned palette is also quite appealing. Detail is superb throughout, blacks are rich and inky and shadow delineation is impressive. Audio is solid, though the somewhat treacly original score is a liability at times. There's very little in the way of sound design; this is a clean, simple, dialogue-driven track. The only supplement included is a theatrical trailer.
Master Harold...and the Boys fumbles a bit during its first half, but delivers a second half that is strong enough to compensate. This one's worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13