The Endless River (2015) | Competition | Venice Film Festival | LFF 2015
Writer | Director: Oliver Hermanus
Cast: Crystal-Donna Roberts, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Denise Newman
108min Drama South Africa
Oliver Hermanus is a white South African director whose debut Shirley Adams was an outstanding portrait of a mother in crisis. Denis Newman played that mother and she stars here again in his third feature and Venice 2015 hopeful THE ENDLESS RIVER.
The film could be described as “Cape Noir” with its shady characters underpinning a realist romantic drama that burns as slowly as a South African Braai. Creating a powerful sense of place with the wild and craggy Cape scenery, Hermanus delivers a seethingly suspenseful story, ignited by moments of fiery melodrama and injected with a crafty mix of racial and class tension and mistrust.
A hefty title sequence suggests 40s Hollywood in golden hued graphics where the characters are billed with dots leading to their names. This is accompanied by a bold opening ‘overture’ from Braam du Toit, whose unusual and atmospheric original score often sets the mood for each scene’s ambiance. In a sleepy community in Riviersonderend near Cape Town, we meet Mona (Denise Newman) at the home she shares with her daughter Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) and son-in-law Percy was has been released from prison, in a classic opening sequence. Clearly Mona has reservations about Percy’s future and so does Tiny, although she is desperately in love.
In a farmstead nearby, Frenchman Gilles (Nicolas Duvauchelle|Polisse), is eating dinner with his wife and two young sons. Their meal takes place in silence suggesting an undercurrent of unease but Hermanus never elaborates on this and shortly after the wife and boys are savagely murdered in their home by three Black interlopers, possibly exercising a gangland initiation with their innocent victims being the French family. The attack sequence takes place in silence scored only by Braam de Toit’s ambient soundtrack screeching terror into the proceedings. The initiation theory is suggested to Gilles, when he meets the local police chief Groenewald (a brooding Darren Kelfkens) who is leading the hapless murder inquiry. As happenstance would have it, Gilles has already come into contact with Tiny through her waitressing job in an diner he frequents and after the attack, and he drives past her in a dusty country road when she is coming home alone from a difficult evening quarrelling with Percy.
Hermanus builds a menacing sense of tension as the story becomes more complex and misunderstandings and recrimations follow in the wake of more violence. Structuring his narrative into three chapters feels slightly redundant and adds nothing to our understanding of the tightly-plotted affair that gradually centres on Gilles and Tiny as they are drawn closer together, their racial differences fading into the background as a more crucial strand develops.
Nicolas Duvauchelle generates considerable emotional depth as the strung-out and desperate family man but the standout performance comes from Crystal-Donna Roberts who is able to convey her thoughts through minute gestures and even the twitch of an eye-brow, bringing potent dramatic tension and authenticity to a film whose plot occasionally feels outlandish. With her considerable skill and Gilles’ head of emotion as a man who is clearly brought to his knees with grief, THE ENDLESS RIVER remains commandingly gripping from its early scenes to its powerfully enigmatic denouement. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL RUNS UNTIL 12 SEPTEMBER 2015