‘Proteus’ fails to bloom to its full potential

By |2018-01-16T12:08:21-05:00February 10th, 2005|Uncategorized|

The press release for “Proteus” says the film is “as beautiful and lush as the flower after which it is named.” Oh, if only that were true. “Proteus” strives to be a powerful historical drama, a compelling tale of forbidden love. At moments, the film comes quite close to this lofty ambition and it is painfully touching. At its worst, it’s just plain painful, period.
“Proteus” begins in 1725, when a young Khoi herdsman is arrested for trying to reclaim the cattle that his been stolen from his people. He is sentenced to do hard time on Robben Island, Cape Town’s infamous penal colony and, for a quarter of a century, the real life home to Nelson Mandela. There the African Claas Blank meets up with a Dutch sailor serving time on sodomy charges.
The sailor, Rijkhaart Jacobsz, is shunned by the rest of prisoners including, initially, Blank. Eventually, however, despite their vast cultural differences, the two enter into a physical relationship and a strange sort of bond is formed. Blank struggles to keep the relationship a secret from the other prisoners, while internally his fight is with his own emotions as he finds himself with feelings he has no name for.
The exploration of this relationship is the promise upon which the film is built, but we never see it realized. As Blank, Rouxnet Brown is completely charming. But Shaun Smyth, as Jacobsz, is utterly unmoving, making known to the audience neither his love nor lust for the fellow inmate he lets penetrate him so readily. His performance robs the physical relations depicted in the film of any real eroticism or sense of intimacy and reduces it to what you would expect from mechanical, jailhouse sex.
Further detracting from the promise of this film are the cinematic techniques employed by director John Greyson (“Lilies” and “Zero Patience”) and his producer, screenplay writer and partner in crime Jack Lewis. The film was shot on videotape, making it virtually impossible to believe you’re witnessing a view into the 18th century. Worse yet, it’s rife with anachronistic symbolism that takes away from the seriousness of the subject matter at hand.
These detractors spell out a fate for the film that is as predictable as the one met by Claas Blank and Rijkhaart Jacobsz. It may surprise you then to read that “Proteus,” which is available now from Strand Releasing for $24.99, is still on my recommended list. Why? Well, even despite their blunders, Greyson and Lewis are to be commended for the story they tried to tell. Based on a true story, it’s a history lesson that should not be missed. Brown’s beautiful smile will keep you in your seat even when you feel like giving up, and Blank’s moving moment of revelation, which precedes the film’s rather effective ending, will fill your heart with forgiveness for the film’s other sins.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael joined Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. He has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author for his authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," released on his own JAM Books imprint.