After fifty years of black repression under the rule of the white minority, the South African government eventually relinquished its stranglehold, releasing Nelson Mandela and opening the country up to democratic elections. In order to avoid a civil war, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was conceived as a way to instill amnesty for those who committed human rights violations during the decades of white power, but only if the perpetrators publicly confessed to their misdeeds. "Red Dust" chronicles one of these hearings and the effect it has on the community, the victims and the violators.
A celebrated member of Parliament and hometown hero, Alex Mpondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) travels back to South Africa so he can act as a witness in the amnesty hearing of Dirk Hendricks (Jamie Bartlett). A former police officer who is already imprisoned for killing somebody in his custody, Dirk seeks amnesty in the brutal thirty-one day torture of Alex that occurred fourteen-years prior. Alex appears because he desperately needs to find out what happened to his former friend Steven Sizela, who was also captured and taken into custody at the same time. Acting as Alex's counsel is New York lawyer Sarah Barcant (Hilary Swank), a born and bred South African woman who encountered the racist white regime as a young girl when she was arrested for dating a black boy. Together, Sarah and Alex attempt to uncover the circumstances behind Steven's disappearance, leading into revelations about the corrupt police force and their deplorable tactics.
"Red Dust" is a handsomely produced film that features a handful of emotionally charged scenes, yet somehow falters as a complete work. Clunky, exposition-filled dialogue and an over-reliance on epileptic-inducing flashbacks hamper the film's noble intentions. Compounding these problems is the cookie-cutter characters who display a minimum amount of emotional shades. As Alex, Ejiofor does a fine job in his role, but his dignified stoicism, coupled with his strong emotional outbursts, soon grows tiresome and repetitive. As Alex's lawyer, Hilary Swank gives a competent performance, but offers little else in the way of weight. There's some background given to her character, yet she never really connects with the rest of the narrative and ultimately proves to be unmemorable. Far more interesting is the Dirk Hendricks character, who is alternately a conniving, brutal man, yet also comes across as repentant for his past crimes. We're never quite sure what he's thinking or what his true motivations are, which certainly lends the character a mysterious air.
Despite this minor redemptive quality, the film plays everything so politically correct and respectful that it neuters whatever impact it was going for. Consequentially, "Red Dust" suffers from being too heavy-handed at times, when a subtler approach would have been more effective. It also squanders provocative imagery (like the opening scene of a bloodied black man being dragged out of frame), by repeating these harrowing images ad nauseam, lessening the impact by sheer redundancy. By the time the conclusion arrives, the film has over-extended itself (ending about twenty minutes too late), which also softens the emotional blows. With its heart in the right place, "Red Dust" is essentially a routine courtroom drama dressed up as a political mystery. Predominantly dialogue-driven, it attempts to leaven the dense material with horrific flashbacks and buried secrets, but the worthwhile subject matter struggles for cohesion. There's a better film waiting to get made about the brutal history of apartheid and unfortunately, the ambitious-minded "Red Dust" isn't it.
Even though there are many problems with the film, it does feature some impressive cinematography. Wide, panoramic shots of the South African landscape are beautifully captured and are breathtaking in their richness. Also, the story exhibits just enough mystery to hold one's attention. Further, the black/white dynamic is portrayed in interesting ways (like when The Truth and Reconciliation Commission travels through a white neighborhood to a series of disgusted looks or when Alex continually swims in a public pool that still has a "Whites Only" sign posted), adding layers to the building racial tension. Also, there is an expertly conceived scene that depicts Alex's haunting memories of his brutal torture when he notices the devices used on him during his long imprisonment. Director Tom Hooper layers striking imagery on top of haunting sound cues to create an intense sequence that melds all the tools of filmmaking into a perfectly realized scene. It's too bad that the rest of the film couldn't match this artistry.
Warner Home Video presents "Red Dust" in an anamorphic widescreen 16:9 ratio. The South African environment is stunningly rendered. Hazy, dust-strewn landscapes are nicely captured, as are the bright reds and greens of the Commission hall and the prison bars. These two colors are featured prominently throughout the film and they burst with vibrancy. For the most part, the transfer is exceptional, with no hints of grain or specks. The only minor quibble is some slight edge enhancement in a couple of scenes, but it doesn't detract from the film.
Sound arrives via Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Not really a dynamic or aggressive mix, but one that is suitable. Since most of the film is dialogue-driven, this is not a major problem. Focused mainly on the center channels, vocals appear natural and are free of hiss or distortion. Directional effects are suitably realized; like crowd noises, cars driving and clocks ticking. For some unknown reason, only Spanish subtitles are available, which proves to be frustrating. There are many times throughout "Red Dust" where the locals speak with such thick accents that it is difficult to understand what they are saying.
Unfortunately, there are no Extra Features on the disc. What you see is what you get.
"Red Dust" is a noble courtroom drama that deals with brutality of the former South African white regime. While the performances are top notch, the characters verge on redundancy. Sprinkled throughout the film are some strikingly emotional scenes, yet on the whole the film fails to connect with us. Even though the subject matter is worthy material, "Red Dust" stumbles in its execution. While not a complete loss, the potential for greatness is never achieved. With stunning photography and a mystery that holds your attention, "Red Dust" comes mildly recommended.