As far as middlebrow biopics go, Black Butterflies may not break any molds, but it’s a reasonably sensitive and occasionally insightful look into the mind and psyche of an impassioned and deeply troubled artist. Ingrid Jonker (Carice van Houten), the focus of Paula van der Oest’s film, is a poet who found worldwide recognition in 1994, almost 30 years after her suicide in 1965, when Nelson Mandela read a poem of hers in the opening of the nation’s first democratic parliament. She’s considered a South African Sylvia Plath, and the film’s respectful but unsparing depiction of Jonker’s tragic life bears out the label. Here’s a woman who was perpetually in thrall to her emotions—for well and ill.
Though that generosity of spirit fueled her poetry, it also led her to hurt the ones she loved most, and eventually herself as well. Despite the devotion of fellow writer Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham), Jonker carries on side affairs whenever she feels Cope isn’t loving her enough. (Their meet-cute opens the film, as Cope saves her from drowning after she carelessly swims far out into the sea.) And even when she finally achieves a certain level of renown after her second collection of poetry, Smoke and Ochre, wins a national book award, she finds herself unhappy with the resulting tour through Europe and ends it early. Finally, she’s forced to undergo electric shock therapy after a mental breakdown, and the result of the treatment to her spirit is devastating—“I’m not good for love anymore,” she admits to Cope late in the film—and quickens her path to her eventual suicide.
Through it all, it’s her father’s rejection of herself and her work that seems to affect her the most. Her father (played by Rutger Hauer as a tough, stern, stoic, difficult-to-love figure) was also South Africa’s Minister of Censorship, and even as he faithfully read her daughter’s literature in private, he still condemned them publicly and eventually ended up disowning her. As Greg Latter’s screenplay suggests, Jonker could never quite shake off her daddy issues, despite her public displays of rebellion toward him.
Her most famous poem, “The Child (Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga),” was inspired by a horrifying incident she witnessed on the streets of South Africa. That moment is depicted in the film, but the dramatic weight it musters isn’t the political kind. Actually, matters of politics and racial inequality are barely mentioned in Van der Oest’s film—presumably because, for Jonker at least, such matters are not something she dwelled on except when it hit her emotionally.
Black Butterflies, then, focuses exclusively on depicting her life through her own purview: her literary successes and her troubled interpersonal relationships. And though it never really rises above its standard biopic trappings (Jonker’s lyricism hasn’t yielded an especially lyrical or daring film about her life, aesthetically speaking), it at least avoids completely connecting her dots, content to dramatize the events in her life and observe her self-destructive behavior without trying to force it all into an overly pat psychological profile.
And van der Oest, thankfully, stays out of the way of her star, van Houten, who finally has another worthy showcase for her considerable talents after a few years stuck in the Hollywood wilderness since her star-making performance in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 film Black Book. If the film holds together at all as a character portrait, it’s because of van Houten, who thoroughly embodies Jonker’s passion in all its highs and lows, without attention-grabbing histrionics. Really, all you need to glimpse is van Houten’s childlike, open face to get a sense of who she was as a person and as an artist.