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Friday, November 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mary Brennan
"Proteus," which takes its name from a flowering shrub (the gorgeous South African sugarbush, a member of the genus Protea), is an odd and not very effective quasi-historical drama about an 18th-century affair between two convicts on Robben Island, South Africa's notorious penal colony (home to Nelson Mandela for many years). It's written and directed by Jack Lewis and John Greyson.
Greyson, a Canadian filmmaker, is the better-known of the pair; he's been something of a fixture on the festival circuit over the years, directing gay-themed films and video-art projects ("Urinal," "Zero Patience") that have earned him a niche audience in the independent-film world. If nothing else, "Proteus" is certainly ambitious: It wants to be about the intersection of sex, desire, race, bigotry, oppression, hypocrisy and more. It ends up a jumble.
In the early 1700s, two men, a young Khoi herdsman (Claas Blank, played by Rouxnet Brown) and a Dutch sailor (Neil Sandilands), are sentenced to hard labor on the island the native African for a conviction related to cattle theft, the sailor for sodomy. There they are conscripted to assist a Dutch botanist who is classifying the native flora; over the years, they embark on a sexual affair that eventually leads to a powerful bond neither is capable of articulating. The botanist, meanwhile, harbors a fascination for the African prisoner.
In the end, the pair, still in prison, are put on trial again for their "mutual perpetration."
"Proteus" is problematic on almost all levels. It doesn't really work as historical drama, because Greyson and Lewis inexplicably adopt a kind of snarky post-modern sensibility (jeeps, mirrored sunglasses, chain-smoking typists in '50s cat glasses that are randomly juxtaposed with 18th-century frock coats and tri-cornered hats).
It doesn't work as a political statement, because they're simply trying to cover too much ground the film is so thematically heavy that I can't even say for sure whether it is mainly about race or homophobia or oppression. All of the above, likely, with none really effectively explored.
And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn't work as a love story, because there is simply no chemistry between the two leads. Sandilands' performance as the sailor is leaden. Brown fares better, but his much more engaging performance is not enough to rescue the film.
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