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Free State
Genre Romance
 
Review:

Free State is a South African romance drama from writer-director, Salmon de Jager. Known for writing Verraaiers, Roepman and Stuur Groete aan Mannetjies Roux, he turned his craft to directing with Musiek vir die Agtergrond and now Free State.

His latest drama centres on a forbidden romance between Jeanette, a white Afrikaans girl, and an Indian man named Ravi during the Apartheid era in South Africa. Under the infamous Immorality Act, white and non-white people were prohibited from entering interracial relationships and marriages.

Free State stars Nicola Breytenbach as Jeanette and Andrew Govender as Ravi. The pair make a striking couple with the lithe and graceful Breytenbach playing off the handsome and majestic Govender. They're supported by another budding couple in Leleti Khumalo and Deon Lotz, whose subtle relationship would've made an equally powerful premise for a drama. Khumalo's knowing glances are priceless, while Lotz exudes grace under fire in a tender performance.

This is a beautifully composed and sweeping drama thanks to picture perfect vistas and luscious cinematography from cinematographer, Tom Marais. The visual splendour lifts the love affair from out of the ordinary with rich colours and surreal landscapes.

While de Jager's film looks the part and beams with promise, it meanders into murky genre territory, makes some distracting tonal shifts and struggles to capitalise on the underlying tension of a forbidden romance in a time of racial oppression.

While Breytenbach and Govender make beautiful co-leads, their lack of chemistry stunts the central relationship and engine room of this romance drama. While noble, Govender doesn't have the dramatic range to take Ravi beyond the fa├žade of Prince Charming, making the overall feeling stilted. We want the progressive couple to succeed and for love to rise above, but without the emotional investment, it's not paramount. Add some broken promises and the characters are further distanced by not only sticking it to the system, but everyone that loves them.

This lack of romantic fire is further complicated by slow-boiling adversity. Besides some secret service surveillance and an embittered family feud, the co-leads are care-free with their families taking the brunt of a rising but seemingly surmountable social pressure. The drama's crescendo has some emotional power on the back of a broken promise, but without our empathy or hearts, the moment's lost on us.

The big brother government intervention is more of an inconvenience and perversion than the privacy-infringing, liberty-sapping giant leech you'd expect. While the Indian family tradition and caste drama has bite, lurching into a more interesting crime drama spin-off, its raw power overshadows and hijacks the central relationship.

Free State has many gems, but suffers from its uneven storytelling, tonal shifts, lopsided emotional intensity and genre-hopping. These flaws detract from the overall entertainment value, dulling the flow and level of engagement, making this ensemble drama bold, beautiful but only just bearable.

Instead of ending on a subtle poignant note, the film opts for a grand exit, which breaks with the established tone and further garbles an already scattershot message. The choice emphasises its uneven contours and further entrenches Free State's melodramatic tendencies.

The bottom line: Uneven


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