'A Good Man in Africa' needs a good story

"A Good Man" isn't hard to find -- it's all over the place -- but it does grow hard to bear.

"A Good Man in Africa," to give it its full title, hails from William Boyd's first novel, and it was Boyd himself who did the hailing -- he wrote the screenplay, which Bruce Beresford directed and in which Sean Connery is not so much the star as the guest star.


Connery ambles through, looking despotic and magnificent, a human variation on the theme of the Lion King, as an irascibly honest Scottish doctor named Alex Murray, who runs a clinic in a former British colony in Africa, a kind of demi-Kenya.

He is, in fact, the good man in Africa of the title, which is why he's such a pain in the rear, for the setting of the film is the British embassy, where goodness has nothing to do with it. Rather, Boyd's portrait of the diplomatic lifestyle is ripe with vicious cynicism: the institution is a menagerie of mendacity, hypocrisy, stupidity, arrogance, racism, self-importance, opportunism, promiscuity and billiards. Boyd should know: he lived that life for a bit, before turning novelist and screenwriter.


The most charmingly loathsome of the creatures who inhabit this house of the setting sun is our hero, Morgan Leafy (Colin Friels), ++ a handsome but feckless toiler in the administrative labyrinthes, a sub-sub attache whose main professional efforts center on an attempt to get drunk on each variety of local beer. As there are many, this has grown into a full-scale occupation; he's definitely working nights.

Friels brings a good deal of breezy, pretty-boy charm to the part, as he does to all his parts. He's a sort of junior grade Sam Neill in that respect, effortlessly watchable in spite of his clear callowness, as he goes from beer bottle to beer bottle and mistress to mistress.

But for so long the movie just uses Morgan as the vessel to express a list of Boyd-grievances, albeit sometimes amusingly conveyed. As a consequence, the film has no dramatic shape except as a "Day in the Life of" sort of thing. Boyd's contempt for the mandarins of British diplomacy and the sea of casual corruption in which they so casually go a-swimming is quite intense and rather delicious, but it's no substitute for a story.

The most grotesque of the Old Boys is John Lithgow, hamming it up as the plummy and stupid High Commissioner himself, who appears to be sucking a pickle in most of his scenes. Then there's his rigid and sexually repressed wife (Diana Rigg) and his randy daughter Priscilla (Sarah Jane Fenton). In fact -- maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the beer -- there's randiness everywhere. Later, rather than sooner, alas, Morgan finds himself in bed with Celia Adekunle (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), who is no less than the soon-to-be first lady of the land, the wife of Presidential shoo-in Sam Adekunle, played with flashing maliciousness by Louis Gossett Jr.

This leads to the first actual glimmerings of plot, although it's by now Minute 48 or so. Having caught Leafy in a compromising position with his wife, Adekunle uses this leverage as a means to force him to do something unpleasant. Frankly, I didn't get it: I can see someone else using the knowledge by threatening Morgan that he would tell her husband. But he is her husband. Who can he tell?

Anyway, the onerous little task laid off on Morgan is to approach Connery's Dr. Murray, a civic icon on the boards of many institutions, and offer him a bribe to switch his vote on a construction project. Africa? Hey, this could be Lawton, Okla., or even Baltimore.

The stubborn Murray refuses because unlike the other British bootlickers, he's got his standards; he knows the project is a scam by which vaunted reform politician Adekunle merely means to line his own pockets. All of this, I should add, is about as dreary as my recitation of it, even as it's undercut with Morgan's own desperate games of sexual politics with various lovers, which aren't interesting either.

The story is conceived as some sort of coming of age piece, as Morgan learns from the rigidly honorable Murray a path to virtue and the pleasures of doing the right thing. Yes, but as a moralist Leafy is dull; as a shallow, drunken lecher he's amusing. Worse, the film suffers from a terrific narrative letdown in its last few minutes. It's not enough that Leafy learn from Murray and promise, if only internally, to do better: we need to see that commitment somehow meaningfully dramatized. As it is, the movie ends with the feeling of a slow leak; the air just goes out of it.


"A Good Man in Africa"

Starring Colin Friels and Sean Connery

Directed by Bruce Beresford

Released by Grammercy

Rated R