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September 10, 2006
Catching a World Premiere

A great story is a necessary – if not sufficient – condition for a great film. Every so often, a film comes along where the story is so great that it manages to elevate what is otherwise merely solid filmmaking. Philip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire” is such a film.

The story of South African freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, the movie is incredibly moving, incredibly ‘close to memory’ (apartheid did not fall *that* long ago) and so tragic yet uplifting that it’s impossible to not be drawn into Noyce’s cinematic take on this story.

Derek Luke, playing Patrick through thick and thin, gives his all here. While the performance is not always totally convincing (largely due to script problems I’ll get to in a minute), it’s easy to tell he put his heart and soul into this performance, striving to show the layers and fascinating tale of this extraordinary man.

The Aussie helmer’s direction is certainly more than adequate. Noyce is an excellent director of suspense, with the film’s climax being absolutely riveting. Excessive reliance on close-ups early on in the film is annoying yet on the whole, the directing is respectful, engaging and appropriate. It’s not terribly experimental filmmaking but it really doesn’t have to be.

Shawn Slovo’s script is a loving and sincere tribute to a man her father (who the film is dedicated to) knew. And on the whole, it’s a perfectly fine blueprint for the story. Yet it’s also where most of the film’s problems come from, problems which Noyce doesn’t fix. Characters’ motivations change frequently and, apart from Luke’s (whose role is still not flawless in this regard), this isn’t done very well. Tim Robbins’ character, in particular, is not well dealt with, being portrayed in too many different lights and tones despite remaining essentially the ‘same man’ throughout the film. The fact that he reappears at the very end yet his character is not actually wrapped up also leaves quite something to be desired.

And then there are simply sloppy little things which make no sense. The language of use changes in the most bizarre of ways. Subtitles identifying characters and places are also given when thoroughly unnecessary. This isn’t bad filmmaking…but it’s the sort that prevents greatness.

Much of the credit for the film being as good as it is must go to Jill Bilcock (who was there this evening) whose editing results in a concise and fast-paced feature that never feels dull. The cinematography of Gerry Phillips and Ron Fortunato perfectly captures the film’s atmosphere and mood while giving us intimate shots of the South African landscape. The blending of famous – and traditional African – songs with Philip Miller’s original music is also superbly done.

“Catch a Fire” will likely ultimately be compared to “Hotel Rwanda” (which it is better than but lacking the ‘tearjerker factor’ of) and “The Last King of Scotland” (which I’ll be seeing shortly). And that’s unfair, doing justice to none of the three films.

Chamusso received a standing ovation when the film was over and it was much deserved. His story is extraordinary and it’s great to see it told. And while “Catch a Fire” is not a great film, it’s nevertheless a good one. So here’s hoping that it finds itself an audience. Focus Features knows a thing or two about promotion. They just might pull this trick off.


I'd actually say I prefer Hotel Rwanda, but I do think this is (besides direction) a better film production wise. I'm glad you mentioned the cinematography because there were some wonderful shots (I particularly liked the look of the climax with its mist).

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