Too arch, arty and coyly lingering for its own good, this is nevertheless an intelligently rendered film (shot on video) that doesn't seek to make its central characters overtly sympathetic even as it stresses the human rights so thoughtlessly or deliberately denied them. There is no easy black or white symbolism here about the nature of men whatever the color of their skin--Neil Sandilands as Rijkhaart Jacobsz, the Dutchman, and Rouxnet Brown as Claas Blank, the Cape dweller, aren't depicted as heroes, but flawed men cruelly stigmatized by foolish prejudice and blind cruelty.
Woven into the uneasy, explicitly depicted love relationship of these two long-term prisoners on notorious Robben Island are the desires and ambitions of Virgil Niven (Shaun Smyth) a botanist studying the native flora with the idea of making protea as popular as tulips back in Europe. Drawn emotionally and physically to Blank, this cultivated and cultivating man lies uneasy alongside the hypocritical establishment that persecutes anyone born or straying outside it narrow fold, both back in Amsterdam and in its conquered African colony.
The strange, provocative-looking protea, with its name linkage to the shape-shifting sea god Proteus, are over-photographed as symbols of sexuality, and there is too much artifice to the device of injecting more modern pre-end-of-apartheid imagery and people into the 18th-century arena of the main story, just to make sure that everyone catches the true significance of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela, among many other victims of intolerance, was long imprisoned. As with many movies inspired by a need to send a clear message, that message too heavily overlays the genuine heart of the story, which needs no symbolism to convey the power of love in any form to bloom despite the heaviest of shackles. Starring Rouxnet Brown, Shaun Smyth, Neil Sandilands and Kristen Thomson. Directed and written by John Greyson and Jack Lewis. Produced by Steven Markovitz, Anita Lee and Platon Trakoshis. A Strand release. Drama. English-language, subtitled in Afrikaans and Nama. Unrated. Running time: 97 min