In continuing my catching up of movie commentary for the last month, I’m compiling more South African reviewers’ views on a new South African release, this one Beyond the River and still showing in theatres. In it, a young unemployed man from Soweto finds a great avocation in canoeing when he teams up with an avid amateur canoeist from the northern suburbs. Together, they train to take on the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu Natal, while each dealing with his personal demons. It’s true story and adapted from the book Confluence, the memoir of the canoeist Piers Cruickshanks.
In a review for the Tonight supplement to the Independent News & Media Group’s newspapers, Jamal-Dean Grootboom calls Beyond the River “a beautifully shot, heartfelt, true-life South African story that should be supported by everyone.”
The fact that director Craig Freimond, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was brave enough to not shy away from the vast racial inequalities in SA as an underlying issue is commendable. The way the film addresses these issues also never feels preachy and is done in a smart way. The two leads of the film, Lemogang Tsipa and Grant Swanby, have spectacular chemistry and Tsipa’s charisma shines throughout the film. … The cinematography of this film is also spectacular, from the close-ups of the canoeing to the sweeping, wide shots of the rivers and landscapes. This film is absolutely beautiful. It’s been a while since I’ve walked out of a film and had vivid images running around in my mind afterwards.
The screenplay is also something that all South African screenwriters should view as a template of how to deal with exposition properly. There’s never a scene where the characters explain things through tedious monologues. All the characters’ background information is given through smart dialogue and expertly placed visual cues. It really is refreshing to have screenwriters to do not treat their audience like idiots … and who give just enough information to put two and two together. The score is the film’s only weak point. The sound mixing is off on more than one occasion and the music is louder than the dialogue. The choice of music is also very questionable in parts.
On the entertainment site Channel24, Leandra Engelbrecht, in a four-star (out of five) review, writes that “Beyond the River ticks all the right boxes: engaging characters, an amazing cast and a great story.”
It’s right up there with some of the best underdog sports films ever made. What makes this film really special is that it is a story about two South Africans and it is told with a lot of heart. … It might seem generic but it has elements of drama, suspense and adventure that keeps you entertained and at the edge of your seat. The cinematograph is beautiful and showcases the country to its fullest. The lead actors Grant Swanby have amazing chemistry and camaraderie. Both of them deliver stellar performances.
Englebrecht finishes off with a brief editorial note: “It’s the perfect movie for South Africans right now. It’s a reminder that when we push our differences aside we can achieve great things together.”
In his weekly Silwerskerm column in the Rapport, Leon van Nierop – who also gave the film four stars out of five – begins by laying out his brief analysis of how true stories need to be treated in screen adaptations to make successful films, and, after a quick plot description, informs us that
Steve convinces Duma to train with him and to take part in the Dusi Canoe Marathon. That part is true. And this partnership is the film’s strongest point. If someone had thought out the canoeing as a neat metaphor, one would take heart in the writer’s imagination to give our torn country a little hope. But the Dusi part is true. The joy is to see how people, of whatever colour, get it right to become friends despite cultural differences. The film demonstrates that without thrusting a patronizing fist in the air.
The actors don’t just deliver on a fictional level, but also on an emotional level that persuades. Swanby’s restraint and Tsipa’s renovation of a strange culture is commendable. … The symbolism is clear. You can get a contest (and a country) to work if only everyone rows together without prejudice against people and without selfish, corrupt ulterior motives.
The canoeing scenes are brilliantly filmed. It doesn’t turn into a classroom-style canoeing documentary, even less into an overflow of canoeing scenes just because enough material was shot. Every canoeing scene contributes to the story and becomes the story. … Craig Freimond is a competent director. He has already shown that with Gums and Noses, as well as Jozi and Material. Functional direction, especially in the canoeing scenes, makes it accessible. Freimond doesn’t underline it in thick marker. He shows the reality of the story in an unforced way and explains people’s actions.
Paul Ash reviewed the movie for the Sunday Times, in which he said the story “will make your tears flow like Ernie Pearce Weir (the first major obstacle on the Dusi).”
It is a good story – and, God knows, in these dark days, we need some good stories … Beyond the River is beautifully shot and the performances are nothing short of epic. As part of their prep, [Tsipa and Swanby] learned to paddle a K2 to the point where they could shoot weirs and run some mean rapids. … It’s not just the river that is hard, but the bitter portages over steep hills, with a heavy kayak gouging holes in your neck and shoulders as you run. Still, the come, every year, for the pleasure and pain, to paddle this river through the deep and secret valleys of KwaZulu Natal, because they can leave their troubles at the start and emerge at the end, in pain, carried by the river and renewed. For that thought alone, this is a movie worth seeing.
In the City Press, Avantika Seeth declares that Beyond the River “will warm the hearts of South Africans.”
The film touches on topical issues such as cable theft, peer pressure, family separation, and the gap between the rich and the poor, and between black and white. It may make some viewers uncomfortable because it points out certain realities that exist as a result of apartheid spatial planning … Some may see it as a white saviour tale, but I didn’t. … It’s full of suspense, drama, and a touch of comedy – all jam-packed into one amazing local production.
In the Beeld review for the film’s release, Herman Lategan praised the film against what it could have been:
This is a true story that could have gone badly wrong because the story could so easily have become sappy. It didn’t. Seeing as it’s about a white man who helps a black man, it could also immediately have come across as patronising or condescending. That is also not the case. … The actors [Swanby and Tsipa] succeed at gently and variously portraying a simple and real South African story – and at embroidering fine emotions with precision. … Perhaps this is what will drive our broad and dry country through the dunes. Under all the drama and noise there glimmers a ring of love.
On the website iAfrica, Luqman Ahmed gives a three-star (out of five) review of the film with a bottom-line verdict: “Despite its run-of-the-mill plot; local film Beyond the River offers up well-written characters, strong performances, eye-catching cinematography, and a deep insight into the world of canoeing.”
While the characters and acting are the film’s biggest highlights, the same cannot be said for is uninspired and mediocre plot. Besides the canoeing aspect, Beyond the River tells a story we’ve all seen numerous times before; and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. However, the story is at least adequate enough to entertain – but only on average levels, unfortunately. If there is anything groundbreaking about Beyond the River, it’s the canoe aspect of the film. The local production showcases the Dusi Marathon in all its glory, giving audiences a comprehensive look at the canoeing race, as well as successfully transporting viewers into the shoes of its respective participants. The South African landscapes and locations easily catch the eye, thanks to the film’s breathtaking cinematography.
Leave your thoughts on the film and on the above reviews in the comments. Also, let me know about any other reviews of the film you think should feature here.