WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A young woman is uprooted during the time of the last forest inhabitants of South Africa's Knysna Forest in the 1930s. When she gets involved in an intimate relationship with an urban man, her forest background becomes an obstacle. Karoliena is coaxed into marriage, experiences the realities of progress, the power of money, the oppression of nature, and what it will take to stay true to herself.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Enchanting, enthralling, enigmatic - the Knysna forest region is undeniably one of South Africa's most beautiful natural jewels. It's a sort of hidden world, where secrets are entangled in the roots of yellowwood trees and - as a bosmens would say - you wander as if "awake in a dream".
The spirit of this magical place is superbly captured in Toorbos, the latest adaptation of Dalene Matthee's work, which took eight years to make it to the big screen since director and scriptwriter Rene van Rooyen first read the book. Love, nature and the pitfalls of progress is delicately crafted into a passionate artwork that's as breathtaking as the locale it was filmed in.
Set in the 1930s, Toorbos examines the lives of poor South Africans living in the Knysna woods through the eyes of Karoliena Kapp (Elani Dekker) - a girl blossoming into womanhood who has hard choices to make. She is torn between her independence and love for the woods of her childhood, and the safety and comfort of a life with her soon-to-be-husband, Johannes Stander (Stiaan Smith).
The themes of the film are similar to Matthee's other famous works - Kringe in die Bos and Fiela se Kind - where self-discovery and identity clash with the expectations of a society, mixed up in class and racial oppression.
It offers a glimpse into a part of our history that's often forgotten. The story highlights what was lost during that time.
Beyond that, Toorbos is also a sincere portrait of the Afrikaner woman and it needed a woman director at the helm. There's a definite danger that a male director would have turned the layered complexity of Karoliena into the clichéd "manic, pixie dream girl" whose only purpose is to please the fantastical male gaze and reaffirm their individuality. Instead, the power remains with her as she transitions from a naive girl into a self-assured woman, despite the objections of those around her.
Her relationship with Johannes is also quite nuanced. It's sweet at first, with a touch of male supremacy that's unbending at times. The actors, Dekker and Smith, approached this complicated dynamic in a way that was delicate at surface-level but still brought forth a simmering passion through various subtleties in their performances. Dekker herself also played the lead brilliantly, intrinsically connected to the source material with a deep understanding of what Karoliena was going through.
There were also other engaging and memorable scenes from the rest of the cast, who weaved a tapestry that brought the background to life. Ivan Abrahams as Bothatjie utterly breaks hearts when his life's work is destroyed, while Ira Blackenberg, Clare Marshall and Gretschen Ramsden excel in their smaller moments that help to bring Matthee's world to life. It's evident that Van Rooyen inspires every single cast member to give their all for their respective roles, no matter how small, and it's a testament to her directorial prowess.
Toorbos isn't just an expensive advertisement for the Garden Route (although after watching it, you'd want to make it your next holiday destination).
It's a slow meander through our country's history, Afrikaner identity and the romance of not only the human heart but also the sometimes abusive relationship that humanity has with nature. It's the sort of film you can lose yourself in, and is a must-watch in the darkness of the cinema where you can't be distracted by the unnatural world that surrounds us today.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
Toorbos is now showing in cinemas.