As Bruce Beresford’s follow-up to Driving Miss Daisy, Mister Johnson is both a departure and a continuation, trekking toward more difficult narrative terrain given the colonial African setting, but united by the director’s continued interest in depicting characters, on all sides of a given conflict, with considered compassion. And unlike Driving Miss Daisy, Mister Johnson refuses to simply pin persons to their initial ideological trappings, with a third act that places the lead characters in troubling, surprising scenarios. Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi) is a clerk in 1923 Nigeria, assisting Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), a British magistrate hired to build a 100-mile road across the country. Johnson’s cognitive dissonance, regarding nationality and self, are foregrounded early on. He dresses in an all-white suit and hat, comparable to Rudbeck; he considers himself a refined Westerner and even insists upon having his wedding ceremony spoken in English. Furthermore, when Rudbeck is away, Johnson sits at his boss’s desk, takes his pipe from the drawer, and plays colonialist house. Is Johnson simply behaving as a child, barricaded from entering adulthood by his colonial-caused identity crisis? The scene encapsulates Beresford’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller, proffering an intriguing moment of perceptive character detail, but lacking the clarity of vision to give it precise meaning within the film’s larger schema.
Other scenes reinforce Johnson’s adolescent desires; he comments on a woman’s breasts with the wide-eyed wonder of a sex-starved youth and subsequently dances and sings with an innocence that resounds as little more than adjectival character action—he’s youthful or energetic, the film seems to say. These scenes feel like Western eyes cast upon African terrain, and if the film has an overarching fault, it’s the depiction of Johnson as a boy in dress-up, which “mocks rather than celebrates” Johnson’s martyrdom, as Roger Ebert put it. Mocking could be welcome, but Beresford and screenwriter William Boyd never satisfactorily resolve Johnson’s identity, perhaps because doing so would entail the film’s head-first immersion into truly difficult racial questions, ones which cannot be resolved by simply allowing Johnson’s self to remain ambiguous and unexamined. Johnson may not fully know himself, but the filmmaker should not appeal to similar ignorances.
Nevertheless, Johnson is also cunning and decisive in a manner that suggests his outward visage, one of shoulder-shrugging ignorance when it comes to his own action, might be simply a façade as a means to an end. For example, his relationship with Sargy (Edward Woodward) vacillates between mutual admiration and outright hostility. Sargy commends Johnson for being “too good” for his race, a compliment which Johnson receives with seeming obliviousness to the thinly veiled racism that necessarily prevents him from becoming a meaningful member of his community under colonial rule. It’s to the film’s significant fault that, in these moments, it doesn’t afford Johnson a clear response or course of action; instead, as his debts pile up and the “embezzlements” accrue, it mounts at a point where, having been caught with money in hand, violence is the only option. And, befitting the film’s own uncertainties, Johnson receives an end in which his convictions still remain elusive and out of sight.
However, since Beresford cares for these characters as creations and lively figures, the performances overwhelm the scenario and continue to necessitate a return to individual scenes for potential nuances that prove elusive on an initial viewing. That’s especially true of Eziashi’s complicated performance; he plays Johnson as a man incapable of learning from past mistakes or, even finer, recognizing them as mistakes at all. When he announces everyone will receive “free beer” as compensation for their help in building the road, it’s with an perverse enthusiasm, as if he’s happy to offer a form of indentured servitude to his fellow countrymen and women. Johnson, it seems, only wants to work, no matter the cost. His dedication recalls an earlier line from Sargy, who claims he’s “never had much time for women,” given his devotion to colonial pursuits. That’s not true of Johnson or Rudbeck, who both have wives, but it’s certainly the case that all three men are united by their proclivities for misunderstanding fellow human beings, an ironic point Beresford makes subtly throughout, despite evidence that their lives are dedicated to a labor that should entail camaraderie and compromise, above all. Of course, no matter the comparisons, we’re still left with a colonial situation. It’s this point, that these men cannot simply be paralleled because each of their standings and hierarchical places necessitates messier circumstances, that Beresford neglects to satisfactorily resolve.
The only previous stateside home-video release of Mister Johnson, a 2001 DVD from Direct Source Label, couldn’t even bother to get the aspect ratio right, presenting the film in pan-and-scan format and featuring a stern looking Pierce Brosnan on the cover, as if he were playing the titular character himself. It’s no wonder, due to the film’s poor box office and haphazard treatment, that the film has largely receded into obscurity over the last 25 years. Thankfully, Criterion’s masterful, 4K Blu-ray presentation reveals a film that’s as gorgeously shot as it is carefully staged and structured. Peter James’s cinematography is a revelation; gold hues flood the film throughout and tight framings consistently showcase Beresford’s knack for finding the right shot to assist narrative progression. The soundtrack, too, is commendable, especially in quieter moments once Johnson realizes his fate and, in the scene that probably won Eziashi Best Actor at the 1990 Venice Film Festival, the careful balance of him singing and ambient noise amplify the inevitably tragic end.
Criterion should consider offering films at different price points. Much like their Blu-ray of Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege, which hit shelves simultaneously with The Confession, Mister Johnson plays a distant B-side to Breaker Morant, its twin release, with too few supplements to warrant a standalone offering. All that’s included are roughly 40 minutes of new interviews with cast and crew, a trailer, and an essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard. The interviews are all of top-notch quality, but without a commentary, video essay, documentary, or archival material, one may wonder exactly why they’re paying full price for a disc that has less than half the material of the label’s typical gold-standard releases.
Shots of the sun open and close Mister Johnson, but the sun won’t soon be setting on Bruce Beresford’s long-unseen film, thanks to Criterion’s shimmering 4K Blu-ray transfer.