Not quite cricket

Controversy raged recently in the pages of this newspaper about one of our cricket writers, Telford Vice, and how he’d got it all horribly wrong in an article about Graeme Smith, I think it was. One reader wrote in to say, flatteringly for me, that the I should get me to write about cricket—“what he might not know about the game, he will make up for with good writing”.

I’m grateful for the compliment, and I hate to disappoint that reader, or any others, but there’s a problem. Not only do I know almost nothing about cricket, but I have no desire to find out.
I have no interest in any sports, for that matter, with the partial exception of tennis. (It must be the gay gene.) Rugby and soccer I can only see as bafflingly repetitive contests in which they all run the one way then they all run the other way. Cricket, as a mix of team sport and one-on-one contest, at least has a weird set-up and some By-zantine rules, with moments of grace, but that doesn’t mean I could actually bring myself to watch it.

This is obviously a disadvantage when evaluating Hansie, the new movie about Hansie Cronjé, who led the South African cricket team from 1994 to 2000 and earned a great record in one-day Test victories, but who then succumbed to the blandishments of Indian bookies bribing players to throw games so they could make a killing on bets. Cronjé later confessed to his misdeeds, though only after having been caught out. He had a period in the wilderness (the wilderness of Fancourt Golf Estate, that is) before dying in a plane crash.

Hansie is produced and written by Hansie’s elder brother, Frans Cronjé (also a cricketer). Hence we know upfront that the film is going to be sympathetic to its protagonist; that’s expected. What is not expected is that it entirely fails to get inside Hansie’s head and reveal him to us as a man and a moral being.

Hansie is played by Frans Rautenbach, all matinee-idol looks and square-jawed resolve—with, later, a bit of tearful angst. Rautenbach is a solid presence, but he transmits little inner life: he should be playing a superhero in a blockbuster or an uncomplicated war hero in a World War II picture.

Perhaps that’s how Frans Cronjé and director Regardt van den Bergh would like us to see Hansie, but it doesn’t help us understand his moral dilemmas. When it comes to Hansie’s emotional breakdown before the King commission, Rautenbach can get the gestures right but he can’t do the genuine vulnerability, hurt and shame apparent on Cronjé‘s boyish face at the time. Rautenbach lacks Hansie’s ambivalence just as he lacks Hansie’s unibrow.

The main issue here is that we have a character who is set up as a “national hero” and a believing Christian (he performs on stage with Rhema’s Ray McCauley at one point), who then falls into — well, sin. This sets up the later confession, presented as the quintessence of courage, and is supposed to engender sympathy as he claws his way back to self-respect. Yet, when he’s first offered a bribe, he doesn’t say an unequivocal no and throw the briber out. He later experiences second thoughts, but at the key moment of his first corrupting act he just looks mildly confused. What was going on in his head? How did his moral compass change direction? What latent character traits, conflicts or events in his past enabled the switch?

When it comes to the real-life Hansie, short of a fully explanatory autobiography we can really only speculate. As a character being portrayed in a (necessarily fictionalised) film about him, and if only for the sake of proper character development, it is essential that we are given some sense of what’s going on in his mind at this crucial point. As it is, Hansie appears to sort of dither his way into dishonesty. He simply comes across as weak and hypocritical.

Overall, Hansie remains a bit of a cipher. “Satan made me do it” is not character development; a love of money is not enough explanation. Most of the later interactions with his wife, Bertha (Sarah Thomson), seem to be there chiefly to push the plot along. She tells him he’s depressed, which tells us he’s depressed; she says he’d better do something about it, so off he goes ... Apart from that, we can’t work out much except that, to go by her accent, Bertha is an Australian-American cockney.

But perhaps the biggest instance of narrative neglect comes when Hansie finally manages to shake off his post-confession blues. I suspect this is meant to be the climax of the movie, for lack of a happier ending, but it doesn’t work unless you’re religious as well as a cricket fan. Depressed Hansie is told the biblical story of the prodigal son (which as a good Christian he should know already), and then makes the momentous decision to be baptised anew. Cut to Hansie rising ecstatically out of the water.

That won’t wash, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s like the cop-out conclusion of Confessions of a Gambler, where Rayda Jacobs is cured of her hectic compulsive-gambling habit by a two-minute chat with the local imam. Such resolutions may hold water (pardon again) for true believers, but the rest of us need a convincing narrative, compelling emotions and insights into character. Not everyone can take such things on faith, and when it comes to movies we shouldn’t have to.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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