A tidy hero

Terry George’s potent political melodrama Hotel Rwanda rumbles in with a two-pronged agenda: to slam the West’s discreet non-involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and to salute one man who stood up and made a difference. Paul Rusesabagina was a Kigali hotel manager who turned his Belgian-owned resort into a sanctuary for about 1 200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus — and Don Cheadle plays him with a wonderful lack of swagger, as a solid citizen and an excellent hotel manager, diplomatic and rampantly Westernised. He flits quietly around the lobby, finding rooms for each fresh truckload of orphans, while Nick Nolte’s United Nations commander blusters on the sidelines and the corpses stack up in the road outside. Significantly, Cheadle’s one fleeting moment of meltdown is triggered by the discovery that he can’t fasten his tie as straightly as he would like. His is a very neat and tidy brand of heroism.

If only the movie held itself together so well. Instead, it buckles under the weight of its subject matter and resorts to a blur of fraught chases, narrow escapes and miraculous reprieves. Worse, it forces Sophie Okonedo (as Rusesabagina’s Tutsi wife) into the role of a damsel in distress, with little to do but screw her face into 100 varieties of terror.

But Hotel Rwanda is at its best in the early stages, when it resembles a cross between Graham Greene’s The Comedians and one of those paranoid horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. Outwardly, everything is normal, but there’s something wrong with the picture. The white tourists are sunning themselves next to the swimming pool and the local bigwigs are puffing on cigars on the veranda. But, behind the reception desk, the Hutu worker isn’t talking to the Tutsi worker and the radio in the kitchen is spewing poisonous propaganda; out of the corner of his eye, Rusesabagina spies a butter-fingered delivery boy spill a crate-load of machetes on to the concrete floor. In these moments, George’s drama has a surreal, nightmarish momentum. Its sense of menace is like a blade against your throat. — Â

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