Sunday, January 5, 2014

"THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" (1995) Review

AK15


"THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" (1995) Review

When the 1995 adaptation of John Ehle's 1971 novel, "The Journey of August King" hit the theaters, it barely made a flicker in the consciousness of moviegoers. In a way, I could see why.


"THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" begins with widowed farmer August King traveling through the hills of western North Carolina in the spring of 1815, after selling his produce, making a final payment on his land, and purchasing goods at the local markets. During his journey, he learns about a hunt for an escaped slave. August eventually comes across the slave - a 17 year-old girl named Annalees. Although he is unwilling to expose her to slave catchers and her owner, a brusque farmer named Olaf Singletary; August wants nothing to do with her. But Annalees, sensing a sympathetic soul, follows August's wagon until she literally forces him to help her. For the next several days, August and Annalees engage in a tension-filled journey in an effort to dodge Singletary and his slave hunters . . . and fellow travelers, whose curiosity or friendliness threatened to expose August and his new travel companion.

Earlier, I had stated that I could understand why "THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" barely made a flicker in the consciousness of moviegoers. One, the movie was based upon John Ehle's 1971 novel, which had been published 22 years earlier. And two, Miramax made little effort to publicize this ninety-minute film. I suspect the reason behind the lack of real publicity has to do with the film's subject - American slavery. Aside from the recent movie, "DJANGO UNCHAINED", the topic of U.S. slavery has not been that popular with moviegoers and television viewers in the past twenty years or so. I am not going to claim that "THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" is a cinematic classic. But I do wish that Miramax had made a bigger effort to promote this film.

"THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" had its flaws. There were times when the movie's pacing threatened to crawl to a halt - especially during the second half hour. At the beginning of the movie, August claimed that it would take him at least three days to reach his farm. Yet, the journey to his farm and a nearby trail for escaped slaves seemed to take him and Annalees even longer to reach. Perhaps this is not surprising. I also got the feeling that most of the characters traveling on that road - including August and Annalees - were traveling in circles. There were times when the pair seemed to be ahead of Singletary . . . and there were times when he seemed to be ahead of them. Very confusing. I only had one final complaint. Thandie Newton gave an excellent performance as Annalees in this movie. But . . . there were times I found her Southern slave girl accent a little exaggerated. I guess I should not have been surprised, considering that the actress hails from Britain.

Thankfully, "THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" possessed a lot more virtues than flaws. Despite her occasionally shaky Southern accent, Newton gave a first-rate performance as the extroverted, yet desperate fugitive slave, who took the chance to recruit the reluctant white farmer to help her. And Jason Patric was brilliant as the cautious August King, suffering from loneliness following the death of his wife. The actor did an excellent job in conveying his character's development from the farmer who allowed his compassion and loneliness to overcome his caution . . . and at the same time, maintain his quiet nature. More importantly, both Patric and Newton produced a sharp, yet slightly sensual screen chemistry. Larry Drake (from "DARKMAN" and NBC's "L.A. LAW") gave a subtle, yet frightening performance as Annalees' relentless owner, who is determined to recapture her. The movie also boasted a solid supporting performance from Sam Waterston as August's neighbor and a local lawman.

"THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING" had more to offer. One, it featured some solid direction by Andrew Duigan. Also, the movie was filmed in - where else - North Carolina. Not only did the movie's locations looked beautiful, its beauty was enhanced by Slawomir Idziak's sharp and colorful photography. Although I would not view the movie's setting as an excuse to provide eye-catching costumes, I must admit that Patricia Norris did an excellent job in re-creating the styles of Early America Appalachia through her costume designs.

I was surprised to learn that author John Ehle wrote the movie's screenplay. I am usually wary of novelists writing the screen adaptations of their own novels. They tend to overdo it with over-the-top dialogue or protracted pacing. Granted, a third of the movie did suffer from a slow pacing, but I feel that Ehle did an otherwise excellent job in translating his novel into a movie. I was especially impressed by his portrayal of both August and Annalees. As I had noted earlier, August's character was very well developed, without the loss of his core nature. Some film critics have complained that Annalees was portrayed as a passive character. I never got that impression. Granted, August helped her evade Singletary and his slave hunters. But critics seemed to forget that Annalees had more or less forced August to help her. More importantly, she steadfastly maintained her own sense of individuality - even to the point of reacting violently when she believed August was expressing sexual interest in her during the movie's first half hour. Ehle also provided a good deal of action and tension - surprisingly so for a movie that is basically a character study.

With the success of "DJANGO UNCHAINED" and "12 YEARS A SLAVE", I hope that more film fans would consider taking the time to view "THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING". It has its flaws, but I feel that it is a rewarding character study of two people during a period that is considered dark during this country's history.

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