Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Journey of August King (1995)

Starring: Jason Patric, Thandie Newton
Music: Stephen Endelman
Director: John Duigan
Screenplay: John Ehle
Director of Photography: Slawomir Idziak

I’d never heard of this before it came up on TV last night: a very fine, understated historical drama, based on a novel by John Ehle, who adapted his book for the film’s screenplay. The journey referenced in the title is that undertaken by Jason Patric’s character, August King: a widowed homesteader in 19th-century North Carolina, he’s coming back from market having bought a cow, a pig and a couple of geese with the profits of a year’s work. On the way, he ends up aiding the escape of runaway slave Annalees (Thandie Newton, here following up her performance, also as a slave, in the same director’s ‘Jefferson in Paris’), and in the process loses his newly-acquired animals and his home (it’s burnt down in retribution).

In large part due to the contribution of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, perhaps best known for his work with Krzysztof Kieslowski (this was his first American feature), it’s beautiful to look at; scenes often open with lingering shots of natural details (a butterfly, a leaf, a ray of sun through the trees), and, as the film progresses, there’s a dark tint at the edges of the screen and a progressive lightening in the centre which gives an almost storybook, fairytale quality to the images.

Yet this isn’t a film aiming for a fairytale quality: careful attention is paid to verisimilitude in costumes, dialogue, and narrative action. There are no manufactured moments of drama, overwrought confrontations and raised voices, but, rather, successions of small incidents (usually, the risk of being discovered by other people on the trail), the gradual development of narrative dilemmas, considerations both practical and moral – all of a piece with the careful attention paid to the complexities of character, of human behaviour. This puts a lot of focus on the actors – if they do not succeed in fully inhabiting their roles, in retaining interest and being more than just masks, facades, while at the same time not over-acting, over-emoting, then such a slow-paced film, filled with spaces and silences and dialogue which – as in life – verges on the inane, could become simply empty, going through the motions, the semblance of profundity, without the necessary substance behind that surface (for Roger Ebert, this was a trap not successfully negotiated: “The pacing, which is meant to be thoughtful, is lethargic. The silences grow longer than the moods they are intended to establish.”)

Credit, then, to the leading players: in particular, Jason Patric, whose expressions create August King as someone surprised by his generosity, sorrowing at his wife’s death (as we learn towards the end of the film, she committed suicide after the death of their baby), something of a loner, hard-working and quietly determined – someone, who, as he repeatedly states, has never broken the law in his life, and can’t quite understand (or, perhaps, can’t face the full implications of) why he’s doing so now. Roger Ebert argues that August is made too good, but to me it seems like a much more reluctant heroism, or maybe something that just arises from his pragmatic approach: the woman has entered his camp, is in need of help, so he gives it, and it wouldn’t do to abandon her on the route. Once one’s started, one might as well go on – almost a kind of fatalism, or, more likely, an understated self-sacrifice: a realisation of consequences, but a refusal to let these outweigh ‘doing the right thing’.

But this isn’t just ‘one man’s journey’, though it could easily have become so: Annalees could have become simply a cipher, the pivot around which the narrative turns and the motivating force for much of the action, but not necessarily an individuated figure, someone whose sufferings, though undeniable, risk becoming generalized into the sufferings of a people, a race, and thus losing their personal force (whereas King’s can seem a more singular sorrow – the loss of a wife not emblematic of an entire system of injustice). That she is more than this can be partially credited to the nicely-judged dialogue she is given by Ehle, but Thandie Newton’s performance catches just the right pitch too: at 17, her character is toughened by a life of hard service, but she also maintains a certain girlishness, a playfulness which pokes through despite her hardships (as when she comments on the oddness of naming people after the months of the year).

And then one must take into account the relations between the two leads: the lack of romance, which Roger Ebert felt weighted against the film, seems to me one of its main strengths. This makes it harder to talk about ‘chemistry’ – a word invariably dug out when a man and a woman play opposite each other in a film, and something which Patric and Newton could easily have played up. There may nonetheless be something of a sexual dimension to the relationship; August’s attraction to Annalees is shown pretty clearly in the scene where he rubs ointment into a scratch on her back. In a lesser film, this would have turned into a sexual encounter; when I say ‘lesser’, this isn’t merely moral prurience, but practical – with no birth control, it would hardly do for the 17-year old Annalees to have to trek north, heavily pregnant, and then to have to look after a baby to compound her hardships. In such a world, ‘romance’ is something of a dud concept (there’s no leisure for fancy speculations), and even ‘love’, still figured as something inexplicable and mysterious, is brought down to something of a pragmatic level: in a campfire scene, Annalees asks August what love is, and his reply – that he heard a preacher say that it was the overflowing of need for another – could be read on several levels (as well as deferring it from personal experience to theoretical speculation, in a way that suggest, not so much that ‘love’ doesn’t exist, but that it might make more sense to live ‘love’ as it emerges in life, rather than to organize one’s life around vague and possibly spurious concepts). In terms of August himself, the reported explanation has a very real application to his own loneliness; his relation with Annalees is much more about companionship than sexual spark, about mutual comfort – he comforts her by actually treating her as a human being and helping her escape, she comforts him by her vivaciousness and by such gestures of kindness as telling him that God probably caught his wife when she feel from the ledge. Newton’s delivery of this line presents it not as emerging from a naïve religious hope; she says it to offer comfort, rather than because she believes it herself, nor does she think that August will believe it either. This could come across as condescending, or foolish, but in this instance it seems like a carefully-weighted (yet spontaneously generous) judgment in human interaction, a realization that she may have probed too far into feelings that hurt (by asking what became of his wife), and an attempt to salve that wound. Such interaction is typical of the film’s portrayal of its leads’ relationship, refusing to settle for ‘romance’ and instead going for the whole complex of emotions that appear in life, if not in the movies. Perhaps for this reason – because ‘August King’ doesn’t go for the sort of solutions we expect from films and their artificially-ordered lives and narratives – it often feels more like a well-crafted short novel, a story, even as it uses cinema’s advantages, particularly (as we shall see) in photographic terms, in the quality of its images.

If Patric and Newton are exemplary in their roles, Larry King, too, deserves praise for playing Olaf, the slave-owner, as someone who does things which most would describe as ‘evil’, but who is not a stereotypical snarling or smiling racist – in contrast to his underlings, who in one scene are overheard debating whether black people have souls (probably not, is the conclusion), he responds quite angrily to August’s faked naivety about African-Americans – “they’re people just like us,” who eat the same things that we do – and is particularly vehement that Annalees “ain’t a thief.” He’s almost as confused as August is, though he chooses to remain on the wrong side of that confusion, rather than working through it as August does, and often comes across as a hurt child lashing out, in a mixture of sorrow, longing, and anger, at the loss of his prize possession (to whom he also has blood ties – she’s his daughter). It’s a beautifully-judged mixture of brutal action and child-like confusion – when August encounters him camping at night, he’s banging on a metal pan like a kid with a toy drum, in the vain hope that Annalees will hear the sound and come running back to him, but he’s also capable of extreme violence, slicing a man in half with a meat cleaver in the film’s most explicit scene. This is perhaps best summed up in the scene where he catches up with August at his house; demanding to know where his slave is, he seems genuinely hurt that the man should have helped her escape, responding first through lashing out, knocking him to the ground, and then by the colder, more pre-meditated (and legally-sanctioned) revenge form of destruction of property, watching as the house burns down.

The lawman and his family, King’s fellow homesteaders, present in this scene, are similarly, not ‘evil’, even though they accept (or try to ignore) the inhuman system of slavery going on in their midst: ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’, they’d probably have been well-intentioned liberals a century later, but have a block against breaking the established order: that of the home, the (white) community, the law.

And the aforementioned cinematography, the beauty of the film’s visuals, helps to underline this appeal – to law, order, custom, the local, the settled – for, at times, it seems as if the film yearns for this simpler time, of small log cabins and a few livestock in a green land where eagles fly and call in the sky, where showers leave a moist freshness in the air and on the ground: for the pioneer spirit before settlement solidified into technology and massiveness, when just the fingertip of civilization touched the land, barely disturbing it – a harmony with nature, something closer to a natural state, as in the little interlude where Patric and Newton let out long whoops of delight as they refresh themselves under a waterfall. This sort of thing might seem antithetical to rules and regulations, but it’s precisely because of legal codes that potentially dangerous wildness can be balanced with a feeling of being settled, of being at home; thus, Stephen Endelman’s rhapsodic bursts of vaguely Copland-esque strings, played over particularly panoramic shots, are more folky than ‘sublime’, and the trek through the forest would be nothing if it did not have a solid, permanent home as its ultimate goal.

The community which manifests these impulses, which we catch in glimpses along the route, as August encounters various neighbours, and which we see in its gathered, collective form as he enters the last stage of his journey, is not shown as inherently evil – indeed, it seems that the film-makers rather like the idea of this ‘simple life’– but it is shown to have a dark side (literally and metaphorically), which it tolerates by turning a blind eye, inherently naturalizing something which would instinctively repulse it by pretending that it is just part of the way things are, and is thus not worthy of too much attention. That dark side is, of course, slavery, and it’s significant that this practice is shown in its harshest colours precisely when it locates itself at the heart of the community, at the festive gathering through which August travels. Having finally caught the male slave who escaped with Annalees, Olaf strings him up upside down on a three-part wooden frame, in between two pigs (an echo of Jesus’ crucifixion between the thieves, presumably), and slices him in half with a meat cleaver when he refuses to divulge the location of his fellow escapee. That this is a background event to the briefly-glimpsed Punch and Judy show at which the children gleefully laugh indicates how easy it is to ‘naturalize’ (or to simply ignore) extreme brutality, and how the brutality of slave-treatment is displaced into the brutality of the puppet-show: ‘civilization’, for all its claims to oppose wildness and brutality, to harness nature into a harmonious working relationship with man, enshrines exactly that brutality in its law codes and in its entertainments. A distinctly pessimistic suggestion, this balances out the more sentimentalized/ idealistic elements of the film: thus, even given the pride which August claims to feel as a justified individual in the penultimate, house-burning scene – he can ‘stand tall’, despite the loss of much of his livelihood, and enjoy moral, if not fiscal, contentment – the community of which he is a part is ingrained with the prejudices to which he has run counter (to his surprise as much as anyone else’s, it must be remembered). Similarly, the Punch-and-Judy show and its juxtaposition with the execution/murder appears as a counter-example to the innocent children (all of a part with the ‘young land’/ new-generation pioneer elements) from an earlier incident in the film, where August bribes two little boys not to tell their parents that he’s hiding Annalees in his cart; they respond by telling him they don’t need to be bribed, in contrast to the intolerance of their parents.

It’s worth noting, too, the presentation of the simple settlements and homesteads as the result of hard work, of this simpler life as a tough way to survive. In losing everything, August doesn’t go through the overblown tragic rigmarole of so many films which depict their hero’s descent into hard times; rather, slaughtering one cow, losing one pig in a torrent, losing two geese in the forest – all these are big sacrifices, however matter-of-fact August is in the face of these hardships. Similarly, despite the occasional, rather jarring and overtly ‘weighty’/symbolic shots of an eagle soaring in the sky, what hope there is at the film’s end – August’s moral, if not physical, ‘salvation’, Annalees’ achieved escape – is not allowed to overwhelm the realities of the situation. Thus, the film’s final scene (over which the credits role), depicts Annalees walking along the trail to the North, to her new life, overlaid with a quiet female vocal on the soundtrack, gently yodeling: no blaring, triumphant orchestra, no over-stated ‘hopeful’ melodicism, just one voice and one person, moving out of shot, as if singing to themselves, uncertain of what might lie ahead (more hardship, despite nominal ‘freedom’, for sure – think Lars Von Triers’ ‘Manderlay’ for what happens after one is freed).

Moments such as these, embodying as they do the balance between optimism and pessimism, criticism and something approaching myth-making, a consideration of realities and a desire to overcome these in a spirit of ‘goodness’ and ‘love’, are what distinguish ‘The Journey of August King’, what render it more than what it could so easily have been: a project ‘worthy’ in intentions but not in execution. It rings just right in keeping within the specifics of its situation, realizing that it’s by being true to historical specifics (even if the actual story is fictional) and to human actions and motivations, rather than by ambitious over-reaching, that genuine scope can be accomplished. Indeed, I find myself surprisingly close to James Berardinelli’s apparently overstated position: “The Journey of August King is as close to a flawless motion picture as is likely to be produced by the film industry (independent or mainstream).”

Other Reviews:

James Berardinelli
Roger Ebert


Anonymous said...

this is perfect poetry, true just as this film. thank you


I read the review after vewing the film. It is a incredibly seductive film that draws you into the deceptively simple characters and into the spell-binding landscape. Ebert missed badly on this one. Our reviewer-critic, sometimes caught up in his rhetoric but wonderfully insightful, opened up so much more of the meaning of this of the best I've read.

Anonymous said...

Great review of this movie. I saw this movie back in the late 90's and it touched me in a way that I wanted t learn more about. I checked the book out from the library and read it. I tried and googled it's filming locations but never could pinpoint any exact areas. This movie is in the top 5 of great movies I have ever seen.