For Reel

Black Butterflies (2011)
March 12, 2012, 4:59 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Paula van der Oest

On May 24th, 1994, Nelson Mandela read a poem entitled “The Child (Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga)” during the opening of South Africa’s first democratic parliament. The author of the piece was Ingrid Jonker, a tragic, disturbed figure whose short, tumultuous life aided in ascribing her the monicker, “the South African Sylvia Plath.” In Black Butterflies, Carice von Houten plays Jonker unglamorously, emphasizing her self-destructive histrionics if never quite making sense of what it was that inspired Jonker’s poetry. To make a film about the work of any artist is a challenge, and director Paula van der Oest is ill-prepared for the task. Jonker scribbles her poetry on the walls and reads them in voice-over, but little is made of the creative process and so Jonker, the poet, seems an entirely different entity than Jonker, the bipolar idealist. Most problematic is that the political events are so periphery that they nearly go unnoticed – while Jonker’s poetry came from more of an emotional place than a political one, the film is hurt by its lack of context. Liam Cunningham fares the best in playing what is a thoroughly sympathetic role. The early meet cute between Cunningham and von Houten is so charming that one feels cheated whenever they’re not on screen together.

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