The play within a film that South African director Henk Pretorius builds Leading Lady (2014) towards shows the minutest promise during a laborious rehearsal process. Unfortunately, it is revealed to be a predictably laughable am-dram production in a barn which has the audience of a dozen locals – all familiar to the cast – in raptures, gleefully chanting the leading lady’s name. Imagine The Vicar of Dibley’s nativity play with any humour, whatsoever, removed.
Instead, consider a farce that makes a complete shambles of the British invasion of South Africa at the time of the Boer war. Whether the surrounding film ever shows any semblance of worth is doubtful and the only likely applause will be that of sheer relief when the 100 minute ordeal mercifully comes to an end. Katie McGrath plays Jodi, an aspiring actress living life as a teacher in London trying to impress upon disinterested teenagers the marvels of Samuel Beckett. Her hotshot American director boyfriend (Gil Bellows), who is chalkboard awful whenever he appears onscreen, overlooks his trophy girlfriend for the lead role in his upcoming masterpiece. Jodi flies off to South Africa to do some research, and to prove to herself that she is good enough, taking a copy of the script with her to act out with all her new BFFs.
There, she coincides with monosyllabic, unshaven and dishevelled hunk, Kobus (Bok van Blerk), who is battling the bank in repossessing a farm deep in debt thanks to his recently departed old man. Respective frosty exteriors will of course melt over time, Jodi on a journey to ‘find herself’ and Kobus – whose rugged exterior belies a warm, fuzzy guitar-strumming romantic – will eventually unchain his heart after the hurt of being jilted at the altar. His mother, Magdaleen (Brumilda van Rensburg), is as bluntly outspoken as her home’s decoration is garish but she does at least provide some colour to an overwhelmingly bland cast. The storylines of film and play coincide and the will-they, won’t-they drama is the crux. However, the script is so contrived, predictable and utterly cringeworthy that it is hard to care whether the two lovebirds will fly off into the sunset together.
“I studied drama, I can read between the lines,” says Jodi, attempting to dissect Kobus’ typically South African stoicism, his chiselled jaw superbly conveying no emotion whatsoever. He will later proclaim, “If I use the word love in a sentence, I mean it,” in an outburst from a deep pool of hidden feeling. It’s difficult to adequately describe just how terrible the writing is. It isn’t funny or heartfelt and for a rom-com that is a doubly debilitating. Its misguidedness is summed up by Bellows bellowing “where’s the chief?!” upon arriving on location in Africa to begin filming. It really does beggar belief. Given that it may well be the first play they have ever seen, the unbridled joy expressed by the assembled masses who witness Jodi, Kobus and ensemble flexing their thespian muscles is perhaps understandable. If Leading Lady was the first film somebody saw, it may well put them off cinema for life.