Ever since Richard E. Grant had his breakthrough in "Withnail and I" (1987) as a hilariously grungy decadent, his every appearance has been cause for anticipation. In the awkwardly titled "Bustin' Bonaparte — The Story of an African Farm," Grant doesn't disappoint. He's a smarmy Victorian villain in another grand performance in a film that needs a lift.

Based on a classic 1883 South African novel by Olive Schreiner, the film has a splendid cast and authentic settings, but David Lister's direction of Bonnie Rodini's fine script is mundane. As it is, "Bustin' Bonaparte" is an enjoyable diversion, but with more energy and style it might have been a gem.

Dusty and ragged but wearing a top hat and tails, Grant's Bonaparte Blenkins trudges down an arid road to a remote farmhouse. It is the home of 11-year-old Em (Anneke Weidemann) and her older cousin Lyndall (Kasha Kropinski). They are the charges of fat Tant Sannie (Karin van der Laag), an Afrikaans who is ignorant, strait-laced and strict. But her harshness is tempered by the farm's kindly, intellectual manager, Otto (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and his small son Waldo (Luke Gallant), whose mother was a native African. Bright and ingenious, Waldo is the cousins' playmate — when the children are out of sight of the racist Tant Sannie.

Bonaparte quickly zeroes in on the thoroughly stupid Sannie, and while Otto is on principle a trusting man to a degree of dangerous naivete, Lyndall instantly sees Bonaparte as the opportunistic, pious phony he is, and eventually so do Em and Waldo.

If Tant Sannie's heavy hand made life for the children something less than unalloyed joy, it becomes pure hell once Bonaparte, enlisted as the girls' teacher, moves in and takes over, easily convincing Sannie he is in love with her. Things go from bad to much worse, but the doughty Lyndall is ever ready to take advantage of the tables turning. Sannie and Bonaparte are people of Dickensian awfulness but, mercifully, they're comically evil.

Although the film has a timeless appeal and may be best appreciated by older children, its leisurely pacing and uninspired direction make it seem unduly old-fashioned, quite apart from the fact that it is based on a Victorian-era novel. "Bustin' Bonaparte" is enlivened by its actors and has its moments, but Lister, while adept at directing actors, lacks cinematic imagination.

'Bustin' Bonaparte': The Story of an African Farm

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and brief mild language

Times guidelines: Appropriate for older children

A Freestyle Releasing presentation. Director David Lister. Writer-producer Bonnie Rodini. Based on the novel "The Story of an African Farm" by Olive Schreiner. Cinematographer Peter Tischhauser. Editor Josh Galvin. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Exclusively at the Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.