April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

Maynard Eziashi, Pierce Brosnan

Even on its most basic level—as the story of a decent, basically sweet-hearted young man overwhelmed by capriciously tragic circumstances—this is a captivating, powerful film, full of honestly earned tears and laughter. Eziashi’s performance as the title character is a masterful display of subtlety and insight into a man of great loyalty and deep love for his wife and child, as well as irresistible impulses to lie and steal.

But the movie is also a fascinating evocation of the contradictions involved in the colonial era in Africa in particular and the meeting of disparate cultures in general.

Efficiently adapted by novelist William Boyd from Joyce Cary’s 1939 book and directed by Bruce (Driving Miss Daisy) Beresford with an appreciation of the power of simplicity, the film is set in 1923 in British West Africa. Eziashi, a Nigerian, plays an African clerk working for Brosnan, a functionary who oversees a dreary British outpost.

Eziashi dresses in a white suit and tries so hard to ingratiate himself that he keeps talking about things “home in England.” He helps Brosnan juggle his books to finance a pet road project, then gets fired when the discrepancy is discovered. Later, he works at a store run by Edward (The Equalizer) Woodward but gets fired there too after stealing.

Finally, betrayed by his colonial masters and so unable to cope with traditional West African society that his wife leaves him. Eziashi is driven to a last, disastrous crime.

The film doesn’t romanticize Eziashi’s character. He is likable but hardly angelic, and his pathetic attempts to seem English are all the more moving for being so sincere.

Eziashi embodies all these conflicts marvelously. Watch how he reacts when the racist Woodward offhandedly says. “Treat ’em right. I always say, and they aren’t half as black as they look.”

The rest of the cast is equally superb, from Brosnan and Woodward to Beatie Edney as Brosnan’s compassionate wife and the striking Nigerian Bella Enahoro, who plays Eziashi’s tradition-bound wife.

Eventually this film, shot in the austere savanna of Nigeria, will rank with the great movies about the infinity of damage done by a few years of European colonialism: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India, Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color.

For now it is a fascinating story whose last images stay in the mind like a bitter, unanswered cry of anguish. (PG-13)

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