Danny Glover and Angela Bassett vibrate with charisma as the title couple in Boesman & Lena – not, perhaps, what we expect from a beaten down pair of mixed race squatters who rail at each other and remember better times one night on a desolate mudflat. Director John Berry’s elegiac adaptation of the much performed 31 year old play by the acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard pushes out the theatrical limitations of the work by framing the actors’ passionate performances in wide, deep landscapes, and by flashing back to earlier days when Lena was a glowing contented woman in love. Gloomy scenes of squalor and homelessness alternate with glimpses of a time when the hills were green and Lena’s womb was full.
Because Berry, who established a thriving career for himself in France after his Hollywood blacklisting in the 1950s, died during postproduction, the film now stands as the director’s finale as well as a culmination of his long connection to Fugard. (Three decades earlier, Berry directed James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee in the Broadway production.)
Yet even Bassett’s explosive expressiveness and Alain Choquart’s meticulous cinematography can’t overcome the stagebound, dated constrictions of the story. When the storms blow over, after the coming and going of a mysterious African stranger (Willie Jonah), ”Boesman & Lena” is still about two people on a stage, talking their way into and out of alienation.