South African military service in the 1980s is the setting for a serious look at gay adolescence.



This much acclaimed film comes from the South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus who in 2011 gave us the drama Beauty. That earlier work revealed his directorial talent but some elements in the story which he co-wrote proved to be disturbing in ways that seemed ill-judged. No such problem arises here, however, since the screenplay - this one written by Hermanus with Jack Sidey and based on an autobiographical work - handles no less than three interwoven themes with which most viewers will readily engage.


The year is 1981 and the central character is 18-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) who is called up for military service which was then compulsory in South Africa for white men. This was a time when there was fighting on the border with Angola and a wide-spread fear of Communism was in the air alongside much support for apartheid and deep hostility by the majority to any signs of homosexuality. Indeed, the film's title is an abusive word heard frequently among the military personnel such as the homophobic Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) and it is translated in the subtitles as 'faggot'. Since Nicholas is himself gay but not openly so and since he is starting to respond to feelings for a fellow conscript, Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), Moffie is on one level a portrayal of the adolescence of a gay man of the period. But the racial issue even if kept more in the background is never one that goes away. However, it is the third element which proves to be the one that comes across most potently. Moffie will lodge in your memory as a horrifyingly convincing portrait of the macho world of military training and it is not for nothing that some critics have already made comparisons with the first half of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987).


Given the subject matter, the powerful way in which it is handled (not least in the film's first half Hermanus is on top form and the editing is excellent too) and the quality of the acting, it is not surprising that Moffie should emerge as a harsh work. This is also due to the fact that, as was also the case with Beauty, Hermanus is an artist who is unwilling to compromise once he is working on material that does not have entertainment as its aim. In the case of Moffie that has resulted in a work with a deep sense of realism that makes it compelling but which also yields a film that is easier to admire than to enjoy. That can and should be accepted, but there are also two scores on which I feel that the film falters to some extent.


The first of these questionable elements stems from the emphasis on the military training which, because it feels so central and because it builds towards engagement with the enemy, suggests that this is the film's climax. When the movie continues beyond that with scenes which follow on from Nick's period of national service it seems to meander without clear purpose and, even though it brings Dylan back into the story, it opts for an open ending which while not unacceptable nevertheless feels less than wholly satisfying. But for me at least it is the second of my two doubts that is the more significant. There is a very interesting music score from Braam du Toit which, unusual and striking as it is, is suited to the mood of the piece and therefore does not clash with the essential naturalism of this film. It is, though, something else when Hermanus chooses to introduce passages from the classical repertoire by Schubert, Charles Ives, Vivaldi and Bach. Especially when the music is vocal this feels like an outside comment imposed on the material and particularly so when the tone is religious but this is so contrasted to what we are seeing that it comes over not as a deliberate irony but as a mismatch that is meaningless. It distracts and is an oddity in a worthwhile film that is never less than heartfelt and for the most part impressive.




Cast: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser.


Dir Oliver Hermanus, Pro Eric Abraham and Jack Sidey, Screenplay Oliver Hermanus and Jack Sidey, based on the memoirs of AndrĂ© Carl van der Merwe, Ph Jamie D. Ramsay, Pro Des Franz Lewis, Ed Alain Dessauvage and George Hanmer, Music Braam du Toit, Costumes Reza Levy.


Portobello Film/Penzance Films/The Department of Trade and Industry South Africa-Curzon.
104 mins. South Africa/UK. 2019. Rel: 24 April 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 18.