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Tuesday 29 December 2009

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Director: Ralph Nelson
Stars: Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine
After Sidney Poitier's less than successful attempt at a difficult story in Kenya in Something of Value, he's back there again but this time it's doubling for South Africa and his part is a little more appropriate. He's a black anti-apartheid activist called Shack Twala, who's served ten years on Robben Island, that famous prison that also housed Nelson Mandela, but who we meet being released from a Capetown Supreme Court after his lawyer Rina Van Niekirk effectively manoeuvres the prosecution into withdrawing their case and letting him go. It's all cause for celebration and they're on their way to her office to break open a bottle of champagne when they're stopped by the cops to get clobbered by irony.

They're arresting a whole bunch of blacks so Rina has to stop the car and they ask for passes. Twala, as a prisoner freshly released from prison, won't have one until that afternoon, so he gets hauled out of the car and arrested too. Rina and her boyfriend Jim Keogh, a English mining engineer working in Zambia and only on holiday in South Africa, protest and end up in a fight that leaves them all fugitives from the law. This is apartheid-era South Africa, not a place where the police take kindly to being attacked, even from white folks resisting a completely insane arrest, so they're all in serious trouble. Even Keogh, a white man who neither lives nor works in South Africa, is looking at five years for striking a policeman plus another five for assisting a black man in the committing of a crime. Twala of course can't dream of a sentence anywhere near that light.
So they hit the road for the 900 mile drive to Johannesburg and we start wondering what we're actually watching. Is this a comedy? We certainly get plenty of very dry but very funny humour on the road. Part of it is that Caine and Poitier are two seasoned and accomplished actors who play very well off each other indeed, but they're aided by some great situation comedy. 'Are you in trouble?' asks the highway policeman, when he sees two men filling up their water tank from the river. He can only imagine. By the time we meet Saeed Jaffrey as Dr Anil Mukarjee, an Indian dentist sympathetic to the black cause who has Poitier almost in apoplexy, we can't avoid the comedy. There are dogs in this film that know how to play along with the jokes. But it's not just a comedy.

Is it a road movie? Poitier has been there before on a number of occasions, handcuffed to other people, running from the authorities. Michael Caine could easily be taking the Tony Curtis role from The Defiant Ones, but they don't clash the way Poitier did with Curtis, the racial angle being reserved for the secret police, who are clearly the bad guys, not that that's much of a stretch. Anyway, they get to Jo'burg pretty quickly, so the road part is over and done with. Is it a romance? Keogh ends up back with his girlfriend for a pleasant bubble bath in her apartment, hardly surprising given that she's played by the delectable Prunella Gee, even though her wig is a little obvious at times. Twala breaks his ten year fast by doing Dr Mukarjee's fellow dentist, Dr Persis Ray, in a secret compartment behind a bookcase, and I honestly don't know if hers is a wig or not, given that I know her principally from Star Trek: The Motion Picture where she had no hair at all.
So is this a political drama? It certainly sets itself up as a serious film to begin with, with Poitier turning from prisoner #34 in the hands of his white female lawyer to a political fugitive, with a white accomplice no less, thus making this something of an indictment of South African authoritarian police enforcement. Beyond the idiot local Capetown Cops, Nicol Williamson's Major Horn is a capable state security agent following Twala and Keogh, rattling on about 'kaffirs twenty years out from the trees' but as realistic as his assistant Van Heerden is merely a sadistic psychopath who knows it and loves it. So why don't they arrest them, instead of merely placing a tracker on their car? Perhaps it's because at heart this is really a thriller wearing a lot of different masks, caught up in a story about faith, betrayal and integrity, not to mention £750,000 worth of diamonds and the abiding recognition that the further we get through the film the more we wonder what the title is supposed to mean.

Don't get me wrong, this is an enjoyable film. It looks good, shot in Kenya, both in the inner city and out in the bush, in a lavish apartment and an Indian dentist surgery, in court and in the streets. We even get a jeep chase scene through the countryside with the police chasing Prunella Gee in her underwear. It's a fun ride, with solid performances from Caine and Poitier, not to mention the supporting cast on all sides. The name I haven't mentioned thus far is Rina's husband Blane Van Niekirk, because he's played by a personal favourite of mine, Rutger Hauer. This is the earliest I've seen him, before even Dutch films like Keetje Tippel and Cold Blood, and it's fascinating to see him so young. At the end of the day, it's just too schizophrenic to really know what to think of it, but it ends very well indeed. The last twenty minutes may be something of attempt to patch it all together but it's the best twenty minutes of the film and it has more than a few believable twists. It also makes us wonder once more about the eightyfive that went before it.

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