Beauty (Skoonheid) is the uncompromising sophomore film by director, Oliver Hermanus. The winner of the Queer Palm award at Cannes, it is a dark and conflicted drama set in Bloemfontein, in present-day South Africa. It’s less of a narrative film and more of an intense and intimate portrait of a wildly conflicted character.

Francois van Heerden (Dean Lotz) is a balding and stocky Afrikaans man in his mid-40s. He is the married father of two adult daughters who leads a rather clean and controlled life of domesticity. At least on the surface.

At a wedding van Heerden meets a younger family friend, the engaging and charismatic Christian Roodt (Charlie Keegan) who affectionately calls him “Uncle” out of respect. The former soon develops lusty feelings for the latter and becomes so fixated on the younger student that he decides to concoct a plan. A “business trip” will take him to Cape Town where he hopes to catch up with the youngster, even though this exercise soon turns into stalking.

The film is a slow-burning affair where the dialogue is minimal and drawn-out. When this is coupled with long – albeit tense and silent – shots, it can make for viewing that is boring and tiresome. It’s a shame as the underlying idea of fighting with self-imposed and societal boundaries and grappling with sexuality are good ideas. Unfortunately the film is poorly executed, as the subject’s inner turmoil doesn’t make for particularly engaging viewing. It’s a storm too confined to his head rather than the screen. Plus, the little narrative that is offered is deliberately kept vague, leaving the viewer to have to fill in most of the dots.

The lead character – like most of the supporting cast – is well acted and portrayed. But the star is also hard to warm to or even empathise with. He is after all, a hypocritical and racist bigot that has violent tendencies. He also has a propensity to poke fun at gay people even though he goes to a grim house in the country to have casual sex with other repressed, married men Beauty comes to a searing end with a scene that is both difficult to watch and one that’s visually disturbing. The lead’s inner conflict turns into outright pathology and the thin veneer of respect quickly unravels. While visually provocative and conversation-starting, it also fails to see the protagonist get any sort of obvious comeuppance for his atrocious behaviour.

In short, Beauty is a bleak and slow character study of one tormented and unlikable individual. The focus on the minutiae of his daily life where the struggle is played out internally makes for subtle and often tiresome viewing. Less about actual beauty and more about one beastly creature, this drama is all about secrets, truth, ugliness and a picture of a conflicted man living a “normal” life rather than the one that would ultimately make him happy.

Review score: 2 stars

Originally published on 28 July 2012 at the following website:

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