Journey of August King, The (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Journey of August King is as close to a flawless motion picture as is likely to be produced by the film industry (independent or mainstream). Featuring strong acting, realistic set and costume design, an intelligent script, solid directing, and evocative cinematography, every facet of this movie is impressive. It is a thoughtful, emotionally-rich production that explores its title in both a literal and a metaphysical sense. In the process, the audience experiences both of August King's journeys: the one he takes through the mountains of western North Carolina and the one his soul makes from loss to salvation.

While most films require one to three years to produce, for The Journey of August King, the process lasted twenty-five years. The novel was published in 1971, and Universal Pictures immediately optioned the screen rights. Now, over two decades and three screenplays later, the movie has finally made it to theaters. Following a short film festival run (which included the coveted closing position at Venice), the picture is scheduled for a late-1995 release in New York and Los Angeles, with wider distribution in early 1996.

In a performance that is remarkable because of its reserve and restraint, Jason Patric plays the title character, a widowed frontiersman making his way home from town in 1815 North Carolina. He has just used the year's gains to buy a milk cow, a boar, and two geese. Along the road, he meets up with a runaway slave girl (Thandie Newton), heading for the freedom of the North. Her owner, Olaf Singletary (Larry Drake), desperately wants her back and is offering a handsome reward for her return -- five acres of land and a good horse. August thinks this is too cheap a price for a human life, but is still reluctant to help the girl because it's against the law. Eventually, however, her bleak circumstances prick his conscience, and he allows her to hide in his wagon. Thus begins his complicity in an act that could lead to his complete financial ruin.

This film boasts one of the best-researched and most discerning scripts of its kind to come along in a while. Every situation is carefully designed to avoid melodrama or sensationalism. There is nothing in this film that feels even vaguely contrived. The story is not true, but it easily could be. Even the dialogue -- both the lines and the manner in which they are delivered -- is handled with a consideration for detail and authenticity.

One gripping element of The Journey of August King is the way the plot moves in tandem with character development. The most emotionally-stirring scenes are the simple ones. When August willingly sacrifices a prized possession to enable the slave Annalees to remain hidden, he is not only aiding her physical liberation, but assisting the deliverance of his own soul, which has lain in a self-made purgatory since the death of his wife.

Australian director John Duigan, whose previous efforts include The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, and Sirens, is in complete control of the material. Working with his best script yet, Duigan displays his mastery of tone and pacing. The Journey of August King advances slowly and deliberately, allowing the characters necessary time to breathe and expand. Nothing is hurried or forced; Duigan understands how to move action and transform personalities without cheating or manipulating his audience.

Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, Krzysztof Kieslowski's long time collaborator ( A Short Film about Killing, The Double Life of Veronique, Blue), forges a powerfully artistic sense of atmosphere, using specially-designed amber filters to soften some of the brighter sequences. With various shots of mist-shrouded mountains and roiling thunderheads, Idziak solidifies The Journey of August King from a visual perspective.

Thandie Newton, who starred in Duigan's Flirting, and later appeared in Jefferson in Paris, brings a mix of quiet dignity and desperation to Annalees, as well as a subtle eroticism of which the character is ignorant. Newton and Patric work well together, with Annalees' spirit counterbalancing August's reticence. Larry Drake (Darkman) creates a complex antagonist in Olaf Singletary, a man who is not so much evil as he is torn by the conflict between his own needs and society's expectations.

Although it is most obviously a tale of redemption, The Journey of August King is also a love story (in the most basic sense of the word "love"). Despite the lack of romance and limited sensuality, there's no doubt that an intimate bond develops between August and Annalees, although it's not the one most movies would choose. Each learns from the other and, by the final reel, it's unclear who has gained more from the exchange. The toll of the journey seems a small price to pay for what they achieve, separately and together. And for those fortunate enough to see this film, The Journey of August King offers a look through the window of a rare and special story.

Journey of August King, The (United States, 1995)

Director: John Duigan
Cast: Jason Patric, Thandie Newton, Larry Drake, Sam Waterston, Sarah Jayne Wylde
Screenplay: John Ehle based on his novel
Cinematography: Slawomir Idziak
Music: Stephen Endelman
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1