Berlin Review: Shepherds And Butchers

Steve Coogan and Andrea Riseborough shine in the lacklustre Apartheid courtroom drama, 'Shepherds And Butchers'.

Playing in the Panorama section at the 66th Berlin Film Festival, Shepherds And Butchers is the latest drama from South African director Oliver Schmitz, and stars Steve Coogan (Philomena, 2013) and Andrea Risborough.

Based on the book of the same name by lawyer-turned-novelist Chris Marnewick, Shepherds And Butchers is a procedural court drama set in Apartheid-era South Africa and concerns a world-weary lawyer tasked with defending a man on trial for the murder of seven men with seemingly no defence.

Joseph Walsh

We open in 1987, where a young boy in his late teens, later revealed to be former prison warden Leon Labuschagne (newcomer Garion Dowds), is hurtling down a dirt track in his car, gun at his side, pursuing a small van containing a group of rowdy footballers. The van and Leon’s car come to a sudden stop in a quarry, where Leon then proceeds to execute all seven at point blank range.

His case is seemingly indefensible. Quickly arrested he is assigned the reluctant lawyer Johan Webber, played by Steve Coogan, who gives an impassioned performance, reminiscent of his role as journalist Martin Sixsmith is Stephen Frears’ ‘Philomena’ (2013).

Webber fears the worst for his client, with the case being assigned to Justice J.P. van Zyl (Marcel van Heerden) also known as “The Hanging Judge”. However, Webber is sure that there is more than meets the eye to the case and begins to interrogate Labuschange, who is unwilling to discuss what happened.

In a bid to escape compulsory military service, we discover that Labuschange worked as a prison warden on death row, where he was responsible for tending to the prisoners during their last months before escorting them to the gallows. During his time working there, he witnessed and assisted in the execution of 164 prisoners. It is these experiences that Webber believes led to severe trauma, and so begins to build his defence case.

What ensues is a procedural court drama that circles and at times wrestles with the consequences and impact of capital punishment. We are provided with vivid flashbacks of Labuschange’s grim career. We witness grotesque scenes of prisoners hung, seven at a time, with chilling efficiency. One of Labuschange’s jobs is to calculate the weight and height of inmates in order to cut the exact amount of rope for a clean kill. There is a chilling flashback providing gruesome details, in which the creak of the rope and bang of the trap door are amplified to terrifying effect, before moving on to the stomach-churning splatter of bowels opening during the prisoner’s death throes. It makes for grim viewing.

Acting for the prosecution is Kathleen Marais, played by Andrea Riseborough, who gives a pitch-perfect South African accent (almost shaming her co-star Coogan, who appears to struggle). Her cold-blooded sternness is a wonderful foil to Coogan’s heartfelt soliloquies.

Garion Dowds shows signs of promise as a young actor, reminiscent of Paul Dano is his craft and appearance, convincingly coming across as a cowed and pitiful product of a system that bullied and broke him.

Brian Cox’s script (not to be confused with the actor Brian Cox), again gives a made-for-TV quality as do the production values, with only the performances elevating it towards a more cinematic feel.

More problematically, for an Apartheid-era story that occasionally attempts to address the chronic problems of race inequality that have plagued South Africa, it gives remarkably little attention to the black characters in the story.

The perspective is exclusively from a White-privileged South African focus. We are even offered slimy scenes taking place in a country club were lawyers quip and guffaw about the execution of prisoners. Little time is given to the other victims of the story, aside from a short vitriolic speech from Coogan’s on-screen co-council Pierre De Villiers, played by Robert Hobbs, who asks whether anyone remembers the victims.

If it were released on a TV network, there is little doubt that ‘Shepherds And Butchers’ would find an audience, but this film is simply too small for the big screen. It is worth viewing for Riseborough and Coogan’s performances, but is too simplistic in its overall treatment of the issue of capital punishment and unoriginal in its approach.

Overall verdict:

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