Tim Robbins as Nic Vos
Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso
Bonnie Mbuli as Precious Chamusso
Mncedisi Shabangu as Zuko September
Tumisho Masha as Obadi
Sithembiso Khumalo as Sixpence
Terry Pheto as Miriam
Michele Burgers as Anna Vos
Mpho Lovinga as Johnny Piliso
Mxo as Pete My Baby
Jessica as Katie Vos
Charlotte Savage as Marie Vos
Nomhlé Nkyonyeni as Mama Dorothy
“In thy orisons be all my sins remembered,” Shakespeare wrote, and while the context doesn’t particularly apply to Phillip Noyce’s anti-apartheid thriller, “Catch a Fire,” the sentiment certainly does.
Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a hardworking, honest and decent man who in his wife’s words cares about ‘his family, his job, and football, and not much else.’ He’s an ordinary man trying to make his way in a complex world the best that he can – he keeps his head down and tries to stay out of trouble, even if it means occasionally sacrificing his dignity, prizing his family’s safety and security above his own concerns. None of that matters when anti-apartheid revolutionaries sabotage the refinery he works at.
Though it is set in the past and dealing with a regime that no longer exists, “Catch a Fire” is very much about terrorism; its causes and the effects of retaliation against it. Noyce intelligently and skillfully connects it all to real people and everyday experiences, as it needs must be.
At some time in the past, Patrick had an affair and though it is long over he regularly visits the son the union produced and whom his wife (Bonnie Mbuli) – who has never fully forgiven Patrick for the affair – doesn’t know about. Unwilling to cause her pain or damage their still recovering relationship, Patrick refuses to account for his whereabouts before the explosion is and finds himself under the eye of counter-terrorism chief Nic Vos (Tim Robbins).
Noyce spends the film juxtaposing Nic and Patrick, the two opposing sides of South African culture, and the what, how, and why of what they do. Nic himself is not that different from Patrick, a devoted family man concerned about their welfare in a troubled land that they nevertheless refuse to leave. It is because of and for them that he does what he does though he recognizes the overall futility of it, being smart enough to realize that apartheid can’t last but unable to give up his place in the system because of the possible harm it could do his family.
And it is because he has such clear cut and reasonable reasons for doing what he does that Nic can exact horrible torture – both physical and psychological – on the men under his custody, all with a clinical eye that is uncomfortably easy to understand. When it becomes clear that Patrick had nothing to do with the explosion, Nic, against the leanings of the rest of his department who believe they can successfully prosecute him, lets him go, but the damage has already been done and Patrick soon leaves for Mozambique to join the ANC (African National Congress) and become the revolutionary he was accused of being.
The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game as Patrick tries to destroy the plant he used to work at (as he was accused of doing) and Nic tries to find and stop him, and both men use every tool at their disposal, including the tangled emotional webs of their relationships, to succeed.
Noyce (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger”) has long been a skillful director of thrillers, but in the last few years he’s managed the difficult task of exceeding the genre without being ham handed, and “Fire” is one of his stronger efforts, with the director’s hands mostly invisible. He’s aided in two very strong performances from Luke and Robbins. Robbins in particular is the best he’s been in quite some time, it’s no mean feat to make the antagonist of an anti-apartheid film empathetic and relatable, but he does.
One of the strongest scenes of the film occurs when Nic brings Patrick home to have Sunday dinner with his family in an effort to both show him the other side of the war Nic (mistakenly) thinks he’s conducting and to put him off his guard so that a precious piece of information might slip out. It’s outstandingly well done.
Of particular note also is the film’s ultimate theme of forgiveness for the wrongs people have inflicted on each other – intentional and otherwise – as the only way anyone can truly be free. It’s an important theme and it might have been better had the film spent some more time on it, but it’s a busy film and there’s only room for so much in two hours.
Though equal time is given to both men the film, particularly at the end, it is Patrick’s which has the disappointing effect of leaving Nic’s story seeming to be incomplete and of trying to place him in the role of villain (which he naturally would be in Nic’s eyes) that doesn’t fit the more balanced characterization preceding.
It doesn’t quite have the adrenaline to be a great thriller, but “Catch a Fire” makes up for it with compelling characters and a genuinely important theme, skillfully told. There’s not much else you can ask from a film than that.