Set in Johannesburg in 1963, A WORLD APART is an utterly convincing, impeccably constructed indictment of apartheid, based on a semiautobiographical screenplay by Shawn Slovo. (Slovo is the daughter of Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party and one of two white members of the
ANC executive council, and Ruth First, who was assassinated by a parcel bomb in Mozambique in 1982.) Jodhi May plays the younger Slovo as a 13-year-old whose world revolves around Spanish dancing lessons, hula-hooping, and swimming in the pool of her equally privileged best friend (Nadine
Chalmers). Her world is turned upside down when her father (Jeroen Krabbe), an ANC official, departs in the middle of the night not to return, leaving her journalist mother (Barbara Hershey) both to take care of May and her two younger sisters and to continue the political struggle. Much to May's
confusion, Hershey's involvement with the movement makes her, not a bad mother, but a distracted, inattentive one--distant because she fears she cannot trust her daughter with life-and-death secrets. The film is driven by the tension between May's resentment at what she perceives as her mother's
neglect of the family, and her gradual acknowledgment of the importance of the political imperatives by which her mother is compelled.
The feature-film directorial debut of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (THE KILLING FIELDS; THE MISSION), A WORLD APART was the second major film in two years to deal with South African issues, coming soon after Richard Attenborough's 1987 effort, CRY FREEDOM. In A WORLD APART,
Menges has chosen to explore apartheid primarily through the eyes of whites, though his black characters--particularly Elsie (Linda Mvusi), the family's live-in maid, and her brother Solomon (Albee Lesotho), a political activist--are considerably more developed than those in Attenborough's film.
The performances in A WORLD APART are uniformly excellent, and the extraordinarily moving work of Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Linda Mvusi garnered a shared Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
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