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Die Wonderwerker
Genre Drama

Katinka Heyns is the director behind South African classics such as Paljas and Fiela se Kind. It's been more than a decade since her last film, making Die Wonderwerker, a much anticipated follow-up for the acclaimed director. She marks her return with a biographical mystery drama based on a chapter from the life of famous Afrikaner laywer, poet and naturalist, Eugene Marais.

The man's output may not have been extensive, but he's still revered for his poems and studies on nature. Die Wonderwerker focuses on a turning point in his life when he was supposedly afflicted with malaria and taken in by a struggling farm family. The film entrenches itself in the following months in which Marais explored the natural surroundings and became a relational catalyst to his adopted family.

Die Wonderwerker stars Dawid Minnaar as Eugene Marais. Minnaar is a charming man and plays the pivotal character, whose role is comparable with David Straitharn in terms of performance and even physical attributes. He's supported by heavyweight South African actors,  Elize Cawood and Marius Weyers. Cawood's performance is quite effortless and she embodies the role of Maria van Rooyen, an embittered and desperate woman. She's counterbalanced by Weyers, who delivers a clenched, jealous, enraged husband and farmer as Gys van Rooyen. The ensemble is further cemented by Anneke Weideman, who swathes the doting character of Jane Brayshaw with innocence and exuberance. While Kaz McFadden adds another solid performance to the well-rounded cast with Adriaan van Rooyen, a young tactless man blinded by selfish obsession.

Die Wonderwerker is a character-driven drama with Marais as the spanner in the works, playing off each of the characters. He's a mysterious stranger, one who seems to hold the answers to each of their problems and ironically, not his own. He functions as a catalyst to the dire situation they all find themselves in, developing their desires to a point of revelation, while trying to keep a lid on his own disappointments with drugs.

Heyns delivers a pastoral drama that is at times comparable with a Bronte adaptation and Western. The dusty, beautiful mountain ranges and rocky landscapes put the story in a setting where horse-driven carts, shotguns, dowdy clothing and people living off the land echo classic Westerns. Then the central character of Jane Brayshaw, the intersecting desires of the central characters and a sense of doomed romance would be right at home in a Bronte or Jane Austen film.

Die Wonderwerker doubles as a portrait of Eugene Marais and a landscape of rural South African life of the time. Heyns unpacks these artworks with a fascinating story and intriguing characters. Die Wonderwerker has been beautifully shot, essentially turning every frame into an artwork in itself. Nature's beauty is juxtaposed with the alienating humanity as Marais speaks of termites functioning as one against the backdrop of a family doing the opposite.

This is slow-grinding vintage drama, allowing the audience time to invest in the leads. The cast chemistry is strong as tensions mount and what mistakenly starts as sluggish drama becomes an ever-tightening spring. John Barnard's script unfurls the barbed characters, whose love/hate relationship with Marais threaten to implode their rural lives. Marais isn't perfect by any stretch, but is something of a saviour to these unlikable beings. You wonder if Heyns isn't in fact making a direct comparison between Marais' living amongst baboons and these deeply flawed humans.

Die Wonderwerker is an Afrikaans classic, the sort of poetic, layered drama that warrants further analysis. The performances are strong, the direction is inspired and the story makes a fascinating study of human nature in some of it's ugliest and most beautiful forms. It's firmly based in Afrikaner culture, employs storytelling that lingers and has subtitles, which makes it a niche film production. It's obviously not for everyone, but offers a rich, rewarding and immersive film experience for those that do connect.

The bottom line: Pensive

9.00/10 ( 11 Votes )
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