LAYLA FOURIE is a sophisticated thriller that explores themes of truth and lies, and balancing personal morality with doing what is right for your family. Layla is a single mother who applies for a job as a polygraphist (lie-detector operator) in order to provide a better life for herself and her son Kane. Her plans are ruined when she is involved in an accident, and what follows is an unpredictable series of tense events which lead to an ambiguous ending.
Rayna Campbell’s Layla is a tough but sensitive character, sympathetic enough for the viewer to invest in but never saccharine. Her moral struggle is at the centre of the film: to fulfil her personal beliefs towards truth (neatly outlined in her interview for the polygraphist post) or to resist and lie for the sake of her son. She is powerless against a sequence of events which threaten to overwhelm her life. She is also powerless against the desires of others: for example, August Diehl’s Eugene Pienaar, who takes Layla and Kane to his house against her wishes. Even Layla’s son is out of her control – running away and disappearing at several points during the film. Kane is a useful barometer of morality; his childish amorality contrasts well against his mother’s strong values. Diehl’s performance as Eugene is complex and nuanced: as a character he is threatening, charming, and vulnerable. Diehl and Campbell have an uncomfortable chemistry which is appropriate for the relationship that develops between Layla and Eugene, driven by lust and sometimes guilt.
… a mature and intense film that raises questions about honesty and responsibility …
Pia Marais has created a film that shows the tensions of post-apartheid South Africa without overstating them; even before the catastrophic event occurs in Layla’s life, there is a feeling of constant discomfort largely due to Rayna Campbell’s tightly wound performance. There is an ever present threat of violence – even when she is walking her son home from school, be it from a glass shattering in an alleyway, or walking past a crowd surrounding a car with a dead man in it. The problems and prejudices of the past are hinted at, from Layla’s boss asking why she chose polygraphy as it is an unusual career choice for someone “like her”, to Layla and Eugene discussing whether the 10% white quota has been filled in job vacancies at the casino – “it used to be the other way around”. Marais’ South Africa seems to be one where everyone is suspicious of everyone else, constantly questioning motives, and even a job as a chauffeur for a casino requires a polygraph.
The end of the film is ambiguous and sudden, which after the decisiveness of the plot feels frustrating; it would have been satisfying to have more obvious answers. However, with LAYLA FOURIE Marais has accomplished a mature and intense film, both gripping and troubling, that raises questions about honesty and responsibility, and deals with race in post-apartheid South Africa in an intelligent and even-handed way.