A decade after he broke through with 'Breaker Morant,' Australian director Bruce Beresford made another acclaimed film about the effects of colonialism on the individual. In a performance that earned him the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for best actor, Maynard Eziashi plays the title character, a Nigerian villager eager to work as a civil servant for the British authorities, including a sympathetic district officer (Pierce Brosnan), in the hopes that it will benefit him in the future. Instead, his ambition leads to his tragic downfall. 'Mister Johnson,' based on a 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, is a graceful, heartfelt drama about the limits of idealism, affectingly acted and handsomely shot.
You might not immediately recognize the name Bruce Beresford, but you will sure remember it. Beresford is a director, and back in 1989, he made the award winning and iconic film 'Driving Miss Daisy'. That film was met with much critical acclaim and went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture. Just one year later in 1990, Beresford released a film called 'Mister Johnson', which won awards at the highly regarded Berlin International Film Festival.
'Mister Johnson is based on Joyce Cary's 1939 book of the same name and follows a man named Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi) in Colonial Nigeria. I believe Beresford wanted to show how a place such as Nigeria, would tolerate being occupied by Britain in a colonial setting. There are always going to be problems when situations such as these arrives where two very different cultures and traditions collide, which sometimes don't always pan out like yo'd want, even with the best intentions.
Mister Johnson (Eziashi) is an educated man living in Colonial Nigeria. He has an excellent attitude and a unique kind of charm that gravitates people toward him. He begins to work for a district officer named Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), who believes that this small village needs to have a large road that connects to a much larger road outside of town, in order to bring more commerce and people. Mister Johnson works with Rudbeck on this project and even gives him some "not-so-legal" information on how to save money and get the job done.
Meanwhile, Mister Johnson is growing in power and we slowly see his transformation into something different and not for the best. It's very similar to what we've seen in real life with dictators and politicians, whereas there might be good intentions, but there is always a slippery slope to fall down, which is what we see Mister Johnson deal with. Fighting and causing violence, Mister Johnson is even arrested in his own town, loses his wife and his job, but he still tries to carry on, but situations like this are inevitable for the worst.
I think the film as a whole tries to show us that other traditions and political systems cannot be forced on another nation without a backlash or identity crises of the people, which Beresford captured perfectly here. Each performance is stellar as you see each struggle and emotion pour out of each actor. The yellow tint to the film was intentional as well to give the audience a subdued, yet rich and warm vibe of the people of Nigeria. Needless to say, 'Mister Johnson' is one great film that shouldn't be forgotten.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of ‘Mister Johnson’ comes from The Criterion Collection with spine #774 on a Region A locked 50GB Blu-ray disc with a clear keep-case. Included is a fully illustrated foldout Criterion booklet with an essay from Neil Sinyard. In addition to that, there are the tech specs and cast and crew info. There are no trailers that play before the main menu, which has menus screen options and the Criterion logo.
'Mister Johnson' comes with a great 1080p HD transfer and is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a brand new digital transfer that was created in 4K resolution from the original 35mm negative. The color grading was supervised by director Bruce Beresford, and thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, warps, and splices were manually removed. Needless to say, this video presentation is stellar.
The overall look of the film has a yellow tint to it, which looks great in this new transfer from Criterion. I didn't think it would, but this image is amazing. The detail is vivid and sharp throughout, showcasing excellent closeups that reveal the finest of facial features and textures in each costume. The wider shots are equally as detailed as well, never going soft. All of the exterior shots of the sun drenched and dry landscapes are beautiful with the rare greens popping right off screen.
Colors are well balanced as well, although nothing would really pop in this instance as there are not a ton of bright primary colors here. Black levels are deep and inky throughout and the skin tones are natural. There is an excellent layer of grain that never fluctuates either. Lastly, there are no major issues with any compression problems of any kind, leaving this 25 year old video presentation with excellent marks.
This release comes with a great lossless LPCM 2.0 track with English subtitles from Criterion. You're not going to get the big, crazy action movie type sound here, but you will receive a well balanced track, perfect for this movie. Every sound effect and ambient noise sound well layered and spot on throughout. Nothing sounds overly loud or misused.
There is also some great directionality here as well. The dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow as well, and free of any pops, cracks, hiss, and shrills. For being what it is, this soundtrack does the job quite well, but just don't expect a fully immersive experience.
Interview with Bruce Beresford (HD, 16 Mins.) - This interviewed was conducted in 2015 for Criterion and has director Brice Beresford discussing his work on this film. He talks about the look of the movie, the hardships filming in Nigeria, and the central themes and characters. Great interview.
Interview with Michael Fitzgerald (HD, 12 Mins.) - This interview was conducted in 2015 for Criterion and has producer Michael Fitzgerald discussing how he got the actors and director together for this movie, along with this difficulties filming in a foreign country.
Interview with Maynard Eziashi (HD, 13 Mins.) - This interview was conducted in 2015 for Criterion and features actor Maynard Eziashi as he discusses his work and character in the film. He talks about his relationship with the cast and crew and some tender moment while filming.
Interview with Pierce Brosnan (HD, 9 Mins.) - This interview was conducted in 2015 for Criterion with 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan, as he discusses his memories making the movie, shooting in Nigeria, and the visual style of his director.
Trailer (HD, 3 Mins.) - Trailer for the movie.
Criterion Booklet - Here is a full illustrated fold out booklet that features tech specs, cast and crew information, and an essay by Neil Sinyard.
'Mister Johnson' is an excellent film with brilliant performances by every actor involved. Director Beresford truly showed what could happen to people, and particularly one person, when other country's values and political systems are forced upon you. Not all is pretty with these situations, but that being said, this is a beautiful film. The video and audio presentations are both top notch and the interviews here are spectacular and worth watching. Criterion has definitely knocked another release out of the park with 'Mister Johnson'. Highly recommended!