White Wedding, a South African feature written by Kenneth Nkosi, Rapulane Seiphemo and directed by Jann Turner has little in common with the song of the same name as sung by Billy Idol. The song has a rather bitter tone (“there’s nothin’ pure in this world”), whereas the film is essentially a feel-good romantic comedy in the form of a road movie. It’s a comedy-drama in which Elvis (Nkosi) and his best friend Tumi (Seiphemo) must travel across the country to Cape Town, where Elvis is to be married in the white wedding of the title.
On the way they meet all sorts of obstacles and surprises, including the gift of a goat and an Englishwoman who has found herself alone in the midst of the South African countryside. Such unexpected encounters naturally add comedy to the storyline, as well as producing the situations that will highlight some of the difficulties of relationships under strain. In this case, centrally, there is the long friendship of Elvis and Tumi, who are very different people and whose connection is inevitably put under some pressure by the exigencies of their journey.
Then, of course, there is the interaction with the Englishwoman, Rose (Jodie Whittaker), who is put in the role often used in South African films, that of The Person from Overseas. Such a role offers a way into the allegedly alien for overseas viewers, naturally, but there is the danger that the outsider’s perspective can be overplayed and the result is alienated from a South African perspective. In the case of White Wedding, that fault is deftly avoided — partly through scripting and partly through Whittaker’s easy, earthy performance.
The wedding in question is white because that’s the traditional colour of virginity, and it’s big production number with all the trimmings. It’s also white because, historically, this is how white people do it. Here, too, conflict arises, this time between the bride, Ayanda (Zandile Msutwana), and her mother (Sylvia Mngxekeza), a township matriarch who has a very different idea of how a wedding should be conducted — and certainly wants to see it happening in her own back yard.
Such elements touch on the racial politics never far beneath the surface of South African life, but the film deals with them in a way that sidesteps angst. Humour is the keynote. In fact, with the exception of Rose, the white characters are the most broadly comic in the film: it’s as though the black characters (and Rose) are more sympathetically real, while the white characters are there to be sent up.
In the case of the regulation screaming queen of a wedding planner, this goes badly wrong: the character is simply a borderline-offensive cliché that we’ve seen too many times and can no longer find funny. In the case of the bridal-shop assistant, however, the twitchy broadness works and, in my view, it works just as well when the trio of Elvis, Tumi and Rose find themselves in an Afrikaner rural heartland and tangling with some eccentric and potentially violent unreconstructed-Boer types.
Here is where the film gets closest to outright farce, and some may find it too ridiculous to take. But, for whatever reason, I liked it; I found Marcel van Heerden as a crusty, laconic old Boer amusing, as I did the more peripheral Afrikaner characters, caricatures though they are. Perhaps what made me laugh at them were long-ago memories of watching the desperate, overblown antics of that old stand-up comic Eugene Terre’blanche.
The balance of comedy and drama is not easy to do. The comedy has to have roots in reality or it’s not going to play emotionally, but at the same time it has to flirt with absurdity if it is to generate laughs. In general, White Wedding gets this balance right. And it gets other balancing tricks right too: it’s a mainstream film but not enormous of budget; it will appeal to a wide audience without resorting to coarseness. It’s funny and it has heart.
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