Feldman @ the flicksPeter Feldman
Peter Feldman: Athol Fugard's "Master Harold and The Boys" is given a big screen treatment but is not entirely successful.
Master Harold and the Boys
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Ving Rhames, Jennifer Steyn, Michael Maxwell, Patrick Mofokeng
Director: Lonny Price
Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys” is a South African literary classic.
It has been brought to the screen by director Lonny Price who played the Hally character in a Broadway production 30 years ago.
Its universal theme has registered with audiences not only in South Africa but in many other parts of the world where it’s been staged to generally critical acclaim.
Set in Port Elizabeth in the apartheid ‘50s, Harold Ballard or Hally (Freddie Highmore) is a schoolboy whose resolute mother, Betty (Jennifer Steyn), runs a tea room in St George’s Park. The crippled father, Harold Snr (Michael Maxwell), is an alcoholic who has been hospitalised after a fall and is now preparing to return home much to Hally’s consternation.
Two black waiters, Sam (Ving Rhames) and Willy (Patrick Mofokeng), share an affinity with the young Hally. Sam, especially, has managed to connect with him and over time has grown to understand the many demons that have been eating away at the poor boy. But the frustrations of school and the act of continuously looking after his Dad eventually boil over and culminate in an explosive finale.
Translating a Fugard play to the big screen is a tricky job because by opening it up and expanding its parameters it tends to lose much of its intimacy. Also, employing overseas names to bolster box-office appeal never works satisfactorily as it’s difficult for non-South Africans to grasp the nuances and inflections of the local accent, an aspect vital in making the production even vaguely authentic.
We saw it fall apart in the American screen treatment of “Boesman and Lena” with Danny Glover and Angela Bassett.
With Price’s “Master Harold and The Boys,” there was a fear this may happen again but, thank goodness, it doesn’t implode, though the work is not exactly flawless, either.
The key roles of Hally and Sam are portrayed by a British teenager, Freddie Highmore, and the respected American actor Ving Rhames and, despite a brave attempt to capture the essence of the characters, there is something amiss in their interpretations. It lacks authenticity.
As Sam, Rhames fails to connect with the character’s inner soul and for most of the film he comes across as a static entity. Highmore fares much better, but, again, I was unable to fully buy into the character and the emotional turmoil he is undergoing.
In adapting the play for the screen, South African actor and writer Nicky Ribelo has expanded Master Harold’s world. It is no longer totally confined to the Port Elizabeth tea room, where all the action occurs, but moves into Harold’s school and an outing in the park with Sam, who teaches the young boy to fly a kite.
The heart of the production unfolds in the confined space of the tea room where the interplay between the young Hally and Sam, which demonstrates the underlying institutionalized racial bigotry of the time, is tellingly relayed. However one cannot ignore a feeling that these sequences still resemble a film version of the play. .
“Master Harold and the Boys” is a bold move to capture on film another Fugard masterpiece but, in this instance, it doesn’t wholly succeed.
Peter Feldman has been a journalist and arts critic for over 45 years and served on The Star in various capacities for 35 years, ending up as a specialist writer on films, music and theatre. During that time he travelled extensively on assignments and interviewed many international film and pop stars, both in South Africa and overseas. He also covered some of South Africa's biggest film and musical events. He is active in the freelance field and his work over the past 12 years has appeared in a variety of South African newspapers and magazines. He writes regularly for Artslink.co.za, The Citizen, South African Jewish Report, The Sunday Independent and is a contributor to "Eat Out" Magazine. He also contributes movie reviews on Mondays to The Gordon Hoffman Easy Morning Show on 1485 Radio Today (www.1485.org.za) and has worked on TV in his specialist capacity. Over the years Feldman has been the recipient of several awards for his contribution to music journalism and the SA record industry. He wrote lyrics for some top artists, including Sipho Mabuse, and had a hit disco single, "Video Games," which was released in 1988. After retiring from The Star in April, 1999, Feldman joined the PR and events management company, Dlamini Weil Communications, where he currently works as an entertainment and media consultant.