"World Unseen" a disappointing lesbian drama

Sun Nov 9, 2008 6:12pm EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - This lushly photographed, meticulously appointed lesbian melodrama set in 1950s South Africa is surprisingly inert in the drama department.

All the passions, frustrations and longings in "The World Unseen" come across in a pro forma manner, again surprising given how troubled and infuriating life under the nearly impossible conditions of apartheid must have been for people of color. Writer-director Shamim Sarif is actually a novelist -- indeed she is adapting one of her own novels here -- so quite possibly filmmaking is not her thing. Scenes are staged awkwardly and actors look generally uncomfortable.

The hook here is that amid all the myriad race laws that exist under the Afrikaaner-dominated government, two women fall in love, an attraction that curiously unites nearly everyone in opposition to such behavior. So "The World Unseen" may gain traction in the gay and lesbian communities; otherwise the film's lifelessness make this a hard sell even in art houses. It opened Friday via Regent Releasing.

What the film does do well is establish the institutionalized hatred and demeaning conditions for all non-whites under apartheid. A cafe within the Indian community, which serves as the story's focal point, is one place where non-whites can congregate for food, laughs and drinks. One brave white woman even hides out there from time to time.

The two female leads are a Canadian actress, Lisa Ray ("Water"), and an American, Sheetal Sheth ("ABCD"). However, their model-like glamour and North American accents are an ill-fit for the story. Sheth's "manishness" gets emphasized in the pants and floppy hats she wears virtually everywhere while Ray looks like she stepped out of '50s issue of Vogue. There is a primness in their self-conscious courtship though that keeps things at a tame PG-13.

Male figures are remote and somewhat obtuse while white male figures are all racist to the core. Some of the characters such as a black waitress feel as if there were perhaps more important figures in the novel but put in only brief appearances in the movie.

Unfortunately, there is more drama in the frequent sunsets and sunrises and the plush musical score that accompany shots of the beauteous countryside than in any of the human interaction.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

<p>Canadian actress Lisa Ray smiles during a news conference for her film "Water" at the 30th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, September 9, 2005. REUTERS/Mike Cassese</p>