(Air Date: Week Of 03/27/96)
Move fast, friends and neighbors, if you're going to catch "The Journey of August King" on the big screen. Not that this small-scale, period tale of a widowed farmer sheltering a runaway slave isn't a worthy picture. It's just that Miramax, which had high hopes for the movie last October when they sent director John Duigan out to meet the press, is hustling the film into theaters with little fanfare after disappointing Oscar-qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York.
So much for the back story. The film itself features Jason Patric giving an refreshingly low- key performance as August King, a man of few words and much privacy. August is competent and decent, all right, he just sticks to his own business and expects others to do the same. But neutrality isn't always easy to maintain in North Carolina in 1815. After all, how do you simply ignore the sight of a slave hanging from a makeshift gallows, executed by his master after running away?
Despite both the danger and his best instincts, however, August conceals a young, desperate runaway slave named Annalees in his wagon. Played by Thandie Newton, the precocious teenager in Duigan's fine earlier film, "Flirting," Annalees is smart, resourceful and tough. And all those traits prove crucial during the long journey north to Jason's farm. August's efforts to protect Annalees entail the loss, one by one, of his geese, oxen, wagon and horse. In effect, August sacrifices his property to aid someone who many people viewed as property in antebellum times.
"The Journey of August King" isn't the kind of movie that elicits deep passions and ecstatic exclamations from audiences. It works in a gentle, seductive way, insinuating you into a time and place where civilization was a necessary hedge against nature's threats, and the rules were clearly defined. We think of frontier America as a haven for iconoclasts and rebels, but "The Journey of August King," like Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," illustrates that the pressure to conform was as great then as it is now.
What hasn't changed all that much is the taboo of mixing the races. "The Journey of August King" suggests a hint of sexual tension between August and Annalees, but titillation and carnal frenzy would cheapen the film's loftier aspirations. This is a movie about doing he right thing, and its consequences.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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