An incredible titular performance carried Tsotsi to an Academy Award win
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is someone to be feared. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, he stabs a businessman on a busy train, brutally assaults a close associate, shoots a woman and steals her car, much to her distress. It’s only as he drives down the road that he realises why the woman seemed so distraught; her new-born infant, crying in the back seat. Faced with a moral dilemma, Tsotsi takes the child and ditches the car. Can this dangerous young man find some sort of humanity?
Sometimes a great performance can rescue an otherwise fairly patchy film, and Gavin Hood’s Academy Award winning drama Tsotsi has a great performance in leading man Cheweneyagae. It’s a complex, ambitious performance from a previous unknown, and must surely rank as one of the greatest debut screen performances of all time. At first, Tsotsi is terrifying, completely dead behind the eyes, a face full of sneering hatred. Over the course of the film’s (fairly short) runtime, he changes, and we see that this is no fearsome criminal; this is a scared, vulnerable boy grown up too quick. Cheweneyagae is blessed with an amazingly expressive face; see his embarrassment as he accidentally spies his neighbour breastfeeding, or his anguish as he debates what to do with the baby. Even when the plot doesn’t entirely convince, or Hood uses a few too many directorial tics, Cheweneyagae is absolutely riveting.
Unfortunately, Hood doesn’t quite have control of the material in the way he needs to. The story of a street thug forced to look after a baby is a fairly unique one, but it doesn’t really develop beyond its central idea. Hood instead spends more time with Tsotsi and his gang of fairly dull criminals, or cutting to the police as they hunt him down. As a short film, Tsotsi could have been blinding; at feature length it drags. The odd scene works greatly, such as Tsotsi’s encounter with a disabled beggar in a train station, which is tense, chilling, and surprisingly moving all at once. It’s a shame that more of the film doesn’t tap into this level of emotion and sensitivity more often.
Even with a few mediocre scenes and a not-too-engaging story, there’s no denying the power of the film’s climax, in which Tsotsi decides his fate and tries to carry about his plans without anybody getting hurt. Unpredictable throughout, the scene is a masterclass in mixing devastating emotion with a real sense of danger and urgency. While the film doesn’t quite gel as a whole, and Hood seems unsure of how to tackle this gritty story without resorting to clichés, the emotion of the film’s premise does work. With a lesser actor in the title role, Tsotsi could have been mediocre; a rather dull attempt at melodrama. However, Cheweneyagae is so note perfect, he carries the entire film and elevates it to the level of a good, if not quite great, drama.
By Harry Ford