Kyle’s Criterion Corner: Mister Johnson (1990)

by | Oct 2, 2015

Adapted from Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel, 1990’s “Mister Johnson” was Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford’s follow up to his Academy Award winning movie “Driving Miss Daisy”; which was noted for it

Adapted from Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel, 1990’s “Mister Johnson” was Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford’s follow up to his Academy Award winning movie “Driving Miss Daisy”; which was noted for its questionable win along with an absent nomination for Beresford in the Best Director category.

While it may be entirely unfair to suggest that Beresford just had the right ingredients for that film and his directing was negligible; it certainly didn’t show anything revolutionary from him. So for that, “Mister Johnson” comes across as a refined answer to those who would doubt his talent or flair while not exactly playing it safe. It was a risky choice that Beresford dug his heels into an admitted passion project that ultimately did him no favors in his commercial standing despite the film being fine and received well by critics upon release. Despite that, “Mister Johnson” was mostly overlooked and downright ignored by most audiences who didn’t carry over the enthusiasm an academy award winning director’s follow up or a movie set in 1923 British Colonial Nigeria staring relative unknowns.

Playing Mister Johnson (his first name is never given) is Maynard Eziashi who had never acted in a film let alone carried one. Eziashi is able to translate the obsequious character wonderfully and charmingly enough that audiences probably wouldn’t have noticed that he was actually an amateur movie star.

Anchoring Eziashi is a pre-James Bond, post-Remington Steele Peirce Brosnan who plays Mister Johnson’s boss, Harry Rudbeck, a British serviceman who is ever trying to be noble and fair despite Johnson’s scheming and misguided mischief. Brosnan’s career hadn’t seen much motion picture work provides a good pairing for Eziashi whose affable personality is at odds with his own morality.

Johnson vehemently identifies himself as British despite having no roots entirely in either Nigeria or England. Despite his cheerful nature and an abundance of quick-on-his-feet approach to his job, the locals find him misguided and pretentious while his white superiors take him only just slightly more respectable. Brosnan, without the proper funds, finds it pertinent to build a road to connect the capital to his post and gets it done unfortunately with Johnson making promises to workers he can’t deliver on. Eventually Johnson is justly dismissed and starts to work for another British officer, Sargy Gollup (Edward Woodward) who treats him like a young child.

Woodward’s character pours on more racial backhanded compliments that Johnson partially agrees with but never puts out a single effort to challenge his superior’s overt bigotry and insulting rhetoric. This all leads to Johnson to “borrow” money from Gollup that leads to an escalation and death of Gollup which Johnson is responsible for.

Arriving from Criterion, “Mister Johnson” boasts a 4k digital transfer but is light on supplements having a more robust release for the recently released and more critically acclaimed, “Breaker Morant”. The release does include insightful interviews with director Bruce Beresford, actors Peirce Brosnan and Maynard Eziashi, and producer Michael Fitzgerald. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer and the included insert features an essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard. The film’s distribution was a nightmare when originally released as the production company, Avenue Pictures, had gone bankrupt and kept the film from getting a proper release. The transfer itself though is marvelous and really brings a visual zest the film needs.

Mister Johnson is a complicated character not only for his conflicting duality of identity but also his disposition to not only promise the world to those around him but to constantly dig himself deeper and deeper into inevitable tragedy. Johnson’s coveted shoes he wears “made from the finest English leather” are laid to represent the symbolism used to convey this mismatched persona, idealism, and the effects of colonialism on the individual. Beresford’s film is not necessarily a subtle one but does a great job of hitting its marks and looking very striking while doing so. The movie is also quite funny in a lot of ways despite it being quite a dark tale. It can be hard to reconcile the tone shifts. The film is also just beautiful and full of wonderful colors. The fleshed out cinematography of yellows and oranges of Africa are beautiful and leave a great imprint. Far from Beresford’s more accomplished and stronger work, it’s certainly a forgotten gem that never got its due and deserves revisiting.

Mister Johnson
United States (1990)
Director: Bruce Beresford
Spine #774
Criterion Collection Blu-Ray & DVD

Kyle Shearin

Kyle Shearin

Powered by coffee, Kyle Shearin is a regular contributor for RVAmag for better part of the decade. Mr. Shearin studied journalism/film at VCU while eventually graduating from the University of Mary Washington with a B.A. in English Lit. Started KCC (Kyle's Criterion Corner) in 2015. Probably likes a lot of the same stuff you do.

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