South African poet Ingrid Jonker was an absent mother, a faithless lover, a thankless daughter, and a vicious drunk. At least, that’s the portrait that emerges from Paula van der Oest and Greg Latter’s filmed bio. Transferring the life of a writer to the screen is never easy, since a truthful portrait would involve endless mind-numbing hours staring at an expanse of white space, but Black Butterflies scarcely tries to illuminate the substance of Jonker’s writing.
At least Black Butterflies gets the tortured-soul part right. The film opens with Ingrid (Carice van Houten), caught in a riptide, being pulled to shore by South African novelist Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham), an ironic allusion to her suicide by drowning at age 32. Although her father (Rutger Hauer) is a right-wing writer and politician, she’s moved by the injustices of apartheid, which soon enters her poetry. When she and Cope see white soldiers fire into a crowd of unarmed blacks, she puts the death of a child into verse, handing the poem to her father as if he might somehow approve, or even be converted. Instead, he tears up the paper. She touches her temple and says, “Don’t worry. I’ve got it all in here.”
In spite of her father’s rank bigotry, Ingrid often seems like a petulant child when she’s opposing him, in part due to the shallowness of van Houten’s performance. She commits to the role, throwing herself to the floor to suck liquor from the shards of a broken bottle, but never connects. A viewer without foreknowledge of the movie’s subject might go some time without realizing Ingrid is meant to be the protagonist, since Cunningham’s performance is so much more charismatic.
Black Butterflies succeeds, at least, in dramatizing the horrors of apartheid, which take root more forcefully than the drama of its ostensible protagonist. When Nelson Mandela gave his address to the first South African Parliament, he read Jonker’s poem “The Child Who Was Shot Dead By Soldiers In Nyanga,” which ends, “The child who became a giant travels through the whole world / without a pass.” The movie never musters anything as powerful as those lines.