“A World Apart,” directed by Chris Menges

a world apart

By Ray Sawhill

“A World Apart,” set in South Africa, is the first feature directed by the famous cinematographer Chris Menges, and for the most part it’s terrific. Menges worked as a documentarian in South Africa in the early 1960s, and the screenplay, by Shawn Slovo, is semi-autobiographical. The story, set in the early 1960s, concerns a young suburban white girl (Jodhi May), a South African whose parents are anti-apartheid activists. She admires them and values their attitudes but can’t help feeling jealous and angry because the political work absorbs so much of her mother’s care and time. (Her father has left the country to escape imprisonment.)

menges and may
Chris Menges directs Jodhi May

Menges can’t resist overstressing that Apartheid is Bad, and he isn’t successful with the character of the mother (Barbara Hershey). Hershey has some dignity, but she can’t seem to help being actressy; she’s always playing out an actress’s idea of a character. But the film manages to be earnestly (and movingly) liberal without being a drag. The feelings have been lived through, and, like the look of the movie, they’re turbulent and abraded. Menges has a distinctive talent for capturing private, unguarded-seeming moments (even as he keeps the public events moving around them) without making a big deal of it. His domestic scenes have a warmth and grace worthy of Mary Cassatt.

Menges seems to like working with women: here, a woman producer and a woman writer; his main actors are women, too. This may have some relation to the way you’re almost never asked to admire what has been set up before you — which is how most first-time directors (male or female) ask an audience to watch their movies. Mostly, you’re with the young girl (and the director), peeping around corners, eavesdropping, noticing things out of the corners of your eyes and wondering if other people notice them too. The film is at its best in catching her tangled feelings, and in its portrayal of her predicament. Jodhi May gives the girl a flickering, tentative incandescence.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill


“A Better Class of Person” by John Osborne


By Ray Sawhill

John Osborne’s store of grudges is vast. In his exuberantly bitter “Look Back in Anger,” the 1956 play that gave the staid British theater a kick in the pants, he let fly at what seemed like just about everything: the British Empire, noisy neighbors, boring Sundays. Now, in “A Better Class of Person” (Dutton), his first volume of autobiography, Osborne tears into his mother, relatives, and associates with a fist-swinging vengeance that makes Brooke Hayward’s “Haywire” look like a valentine. The result is a jolly, mean, exultant book.

Osborne has an explosive gift for denunciation and invective, and what he’s written is — deliberately, nakedly — a tantrum. Disguised bile turned the studiously dispassionate “Haywire” sour; bile, straight, is to Osborne high-octane fuel. He can blow meanness and pettiness up so large that they acquire a looming majesty and a spacious, dreamlike sensuality, like a slow-motion movie scene. His relish can be so palpable that you share his enjoyment of the dynamics of rage.

For its first half, the book is a horror story about a boy at war with his mother. (His sweet-natured father, whom he adored, died young.) Like some fairy-tale ogre, Osborne’s barmaid mother — he calls her Nellie Beatrice — scrubbed and washed as if hoping to eradicate all signs of life. “She talked about germs,” Osborne writes, “always as if they were like ants that could be made to writhe in a miserable death, gasping on their backs, in the cauldrons of her fortress home.” The one activity that afforded her furious soul passing relief was packing and moving; Osborne guesses she uprooted her little family — he was an only child — more than 30 times during the seventeen years he lived with her. Nellie Beatrice “liked the drudgery of moving for its own sake,” he explains.

He found no solace with relatives. His mother’s working-class family snarled and gnawed at each other. His father’s prissy, grim mother — a suburban order freak — hectored people and emotions into line with thin smiles and sharp little intakes of breath, daring even to sneer loftily at Nellie Beatrice. (That Scourge of Filth secured her revenge years later, when she planted the old lady in a nursing home.) Writes Osborne: “Comfort in the discomfort of others was an abiding family recreation.”

Sickly with rheumatic fever, Osborne gritted his teeth through a childhood of convalescences, playground bullies, and boarding school. Then he found work as an assistant stage manager and discovered the theater. The gypsy atmosphere unbridled him. He wrote his first plays, dumped a hopelessly middle-class fiancée and formed a troupe of his own. Not yet 21, he capped his season by starring in a scenery-chewing “Hamlet.” He married an actress, lost her to a dentist who had pulled two of his teeth, and wrote “Look Back in Anger” in just over a month. The book ends with the purchase of an option on the play by the English Stage Company for 25 pounds.

Lazy disdain mars this memoir’s last chapters, which are hurried and sketchy, and the unwritten next volume casts a shadow. The plays Osborne has written since the nightmarish, desolate “Inadmissible Evidence” (1964) have been little more than dismissive shrugs, and his defensiveness about this work gives sections of “A Better Class of Person” a beleaguered tone. But the story of his embrace of the theater has the fascination of accounts of wild boys taken from wolves to live in town, and his most bilious passages, as in his great plays, seem to erupt in your own mind. When John Osborne’s blood is up, he can make outrageous unfairness seem a bizarre state of grace.

© 1981 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.