LFF 2013: 'Durban Poison' review

★★☆☆☆
In the late 1980s, maverick filmmaker Andrew Worsdale gained immediate cult status when his debut feature, the ultra-provocative Shot Down (1988), was banned by the apartheid government in South Africa. Having maintained radio silence for the best part of two decades, the director returned to screens to great acclaim, with his new film, Durban Poison (2013) plays as part of the London Film Festival's 'Thrill' strand. A Bonnie and Clyde-inflected tale of high passion and dangerous criminality, Worsdale's latest sadly fails to really cover any new ground and presents its tired tale within a confused narrative structure.

The film's plot is loosely based on the exploits of real-life murderous lovers Charmaine Phillips and Pieter Grundlingh, who embarked on a drug-fuelled killing spree in South African in the early eighties. Reimagined as Joline (first time actress Cara Roberts) and Piet (Brandon Auret) the couple begin the film in custody with their wrongdoings explained via a series of flashbacks. Having fallen in love, they appear to have unwittingly stumbled onto their deadly road-trip with motive and timeline remaining vague. It makes for rather strange viewing as the action hops around its chronology offering little explanation as to where it has decided to land or indeed why. Dialogue, on occasion, can be similarly difficult to fathom.

Whilst it has nothing like the level of opacity that his famous debut is said to have, Durban Poison remains confounding despite a story that ultimately has very little to say about its characters, or the society in which they live. The fact that it portrays poor white Africans may mark it out as something relatively unique, but it never delves deep enough to make it feel striking, or relevant. The two performances from the leads are solid, but they are let down by their drastically under-developed roles. Joline is by far the more intriguing of the two and despite being a non-professional, Roberts is up to the task, but even she struggles to breathe much relatable life into her character.

The rest of the cast is very hit-and-miss (perhaps a little more miss) but similarly nobody has anything to get their teeth into. This film has supposedly been in the offing for a number of years but it defies belief that these characters and plotting have been in gestation for twenty years and this was the result. There's a neat - if rather obvious - revelation late on, but it hardly saves Durban Poison from being ultimately underwhelming, or explain quite why Worsdale has been drawn to this overly familiar story for quite so long.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Ben Nicholson

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