'Proteus' gets lost in plot details

LIZ BARUN - Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:47 AM ET

PLOT: This 18th century drama involves a Khoi herder and a Dutch sailor -- black and white -- who meet and fall in love on Robben Island, the penal colony of Cape Town. For all the obvious reasons of race, sexual orientation and social status, their relationship was taboo. This is, among other things, an interesting historical document.

Proteus is a complicated story based on real events that took place in 18th century South Africa and Holland.

The film opens in South Africa with the sentencing of Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brown) a young Khoi herder who is guilty of little more than rudeness toward a white person.

Claas is sentenced to hard labour on Robben Island, the penal colony of Cape Town. There, he meets a Dutch sailor named Rijkhaart Jacobsz, who is serving time for sodomy. Also on the scene is Virgil Tyne (Shaun Smyth), a botanist who is running the prison garden. He's interested in the king protea, the national flower of South Africa, and in developing it for the European market.

His passion for flowers -- and maybe for Claas -- leads to a comical scene in which he asks Claas what his native people call various plants. Claas offers him names that are translated obscenities.

Then Claas and the Dutch sailor, Rijkhaart, begin an affair. Virgil Tyne knows what is going on, but says nothing; Rijkhaart tells Claas that Tyne is also gay.

Tyne goes back to Amsterdam but returns to Robben Island after gay men are executed in Dam Square. His return puts Claas and Rijkhaart in danger, and they are eventually arrested for sodomy. Tyne would happily make excuses for Claas, but Claas does not hesitate to tell the court of his love for Rijkhaart. Both men are found guilty.

As storytelling goes, Proteus is somewhat flat, and varous visual references to the contemporary world are distracting rather than illuminating.

The film tackles many issues at once, including various forms of discrimination and such historical and social items as the destruction of the Khoi people of Cape Town.

The problem with Proteus is that the issues tend to overwhelm the story, and one is never fully engaged in the narrative. And, sadly, the gay sex scenes are every bit as boring as the hetero scenes in other films; why is it so difficult to create interesting sex scenes on the big screen? No need to answer.

Proteus, for this viewer, is a bit preachy. Filmmaker Jack Lewis has said that Proteus, "Will specifically remind audiences that gay people have existed at all times and places, and often paid a price for their sexual orientation." Duh, we must say.

Anyone for whom this comes as news is not likely to see Proteus, alas.

(This film is rated 18-A)


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