'MASTER HAROLD'…AND THE BOYS (DVD) Image

Athol Fugard’s acclaimed play, which was previously produced as a 1985 made-for-television film, has been adapted again via Lonny Price, who starred in the original 1982 Broadway production. Set in 1950 South Africa, the story focuses on the fraying relationship between the white 17-year-old Hally and Sam and Willy, two middle-aged black men employed in his family’s tearoom business.

Sam and Willy overcome the indignities and injustice of apartheid-era South Africa through their plans to compete in a ballroom dancing competition. The emotionally isolated Hally is anguished that his racist alcoholic father is returning home after being hospitalized for problems relating to a wartime injury that cost him a leg. Hally takes his problems out on Sam and Willy, devastating their long-held affection for him.

Price expands on the chamber drama aspect of the Fugard text with a harshly effective opening sequence that outlines the hardships facing Sam and Willie in their daily lives (including a brutal moment when a white policeman forces them to produce their identity papers). The film is also peppered with multiple flashback sequences that provide in-depth detail to Hally’s difficult childhood.

However, this film version never quite clicks because of a lack of ensemble chemistry with its three main stars. Freddie Highmore’s Hally is much too shrill to engender any degree of audience empathy, while Ving Rhames (carrying an unconvincing wig and accent) and South African actor Patrick Mofokeng fail to elevate Sam and Willie beyond the level of one-dimensional clichés. What should have been a powerful emotional drama, unfortunately, has been reduced to a fumbled opportunity via this mediocre straight-to-DVD endeavor.

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