LOUT OF AFRICA

In his Confessions, St. Augustine admitted that his prayer for sexual purity had often taken the form Da mihi castitatum et continentiam, sed noli modo--"Give me chastity and continency, but not yet." Augustine's candor puts to shame that of William Boyd, author of the comic novel A Good Man in Africa and of its screen adaptation, directed by Bruce Beresford. Boyd's story is ostensibly about the redemption of Morgan Leafy (Colin Friels), a despicable libertine. But the film, in a commercially judicious move, surrounds poor Morgan with so many luscious women that I found myself muttering Augustine's prayer on his behalf.

Though Morgan is the central character, he is not, at least initially, the title character. Quite the contrary--he's an odious little fellow, a midlevel English diplomat in a small, recently independent west African nation. With nothing better to do, this puffy-faced, mealy-mouthed, craven, whiny wretch spends his time boozing and trying to sleep around, both with a stunning local mistress (Jackie Mofokeng) he keeps in a squalid flat, and with bored Brit women, married and otherwise (Sarah Jane Fenton, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and the still-sexy Diana Rigg). Morgan's adventures, both sexual and political, cause his path to repeatedly cross those of the country's suavely dangerous president-to-be (Louis Gossett Jr.) and a university physician named Dr. Murray (Sean Connery). The latter, a cranky Scottish paragon who looks at Morgan with more distaste than he would bacterial growth, is the rare, Diogenes-sought specimen of the title. Probably because it was so long the tip of an imperial iceberg--also, perhaps, through the singular influence of Graham Greene--Britain has a long literary tradition of these dissolute, unhappy foreign-service cads and bounders as antiheroes. In many cases, and certainly in the case of A Good Man in Africa, the portrait is an affectionate, comically romanticized one. We're supposed to find Morgan a ludicrous, basically harmless figure of fun, and to enjoy both his sexual conquests and his political and social humiliations. We're also supposed to find his redemption (and this, too, may be a legacy of Greene) exhilarating.

There's probably good reason to be suspicious of a comic mode like this. But since the film was directed by Beresford, the all-thumbs Australian whose reputation rests largely on Tender Mercies even though most of his other films are slovenly, A Good Man in Africa seems too slapdash a piece of cinema to fret about in ethical terms. It's not as if it's likely to fool anyone.

Beresford, who collaborated with Boyd before on the screen adaptation of Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, demonstrates again his gift for losing track of the plot and for chopping off scenes just as they finally become interesting--he's becoming the Australian Arthur Hiller. But because it's so inconsequential as art, A Good Man in Africa is quite enjoyable as a disposable time-killer. The African cityscapes, as photographed by Andrezj Bartkowiak, are an exotically alluring setting, and there is some marvelous music on the soundtrack. Above all, however, the cast is just about irresistible. Friels handily manages the British-cad paradox, making himself vile and likable at the same time. No small feat, in view that as written, Morgan isn't a very witty or urbane cad. He's rather a nitwit, in fact.

John Lithgow could perhaps have restrained himself a bit more as Morgan's blithering superior, but Gossett, in his best role in some time, is impressive. The women have little to do but generate erotic atmosphere, but they unquestionably accomplish this task, even though the film has hardly any onscreen sex. Of the actresses, Mofokeng as Hazel the mistress comes across best, probably because she is able to carry some of the dignity of the oppressed; the others are stereotypically bored, salacious, ruling-class sluts.

In the relatively small role of Dr. Murray, Connery is also effective. He's supposed to embody decency and untrumpeted virtue, and as an actor, Connery needn't break a sweat to do this. He underplays the part very nicely, never letting Dr. Murray seem impressed with himself. But in spite of the craftiness of Connery's performance, Dr. Murray is the only really nettlesome element of the story. The plot hinges on Morgan's getting Murray to accept a bribe from the politico, in return for Murray's vote on a project in which the prez-to-be has a financial interest. Murray refuses, leaving Morgan in an increasing jam. But except for the petty, mercenary corruption which any political pragmatist would regard as a given in the Third World, we're never acquainted with the fine points of the Doc's resistance to the project. Apparently, the filmmakers feel that if we hear Sean Connery say something is bad, that should be good enough for us.

The trouble is, this reduces an issue presumably of importance to the lives of an African nation's populace to a plot device by which Morgan's moral fiber will or will not be upgraded. There's a hint of racial and cultural solipsism in this which goes down uncomfortably after we've been invited to laugh at (and with) Morgan throughout the film. Maybe there should have been a dour, virtuous Scot hanging around the set of A Good Man in Africa, to scold Beresford and Boyd out of their dramatic carelessness.

 
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