Hard to imagine a milder, more tension-free movie about apartheid South Africa than this picture-postcard lesbian almost-romance set in the East Indian immigrant community of Capetown in 1952. It’s especially disappointing as there’s great promise in the casting. Some of the choked-off, conflicted line readings of Lisa Ray (Water), who plays an all-but-sequestered housewife both exhilarated and terrified by her unexpected responses to a local café owner, are uncannily precise. Ray’s Miriam has the physique and the soft features of a pliant sex object, but she’s also tall and strong-looking, with flashes of stubbornness beneath the surface. For the forthright Amina (Sheetal Sheth), a feminist avant le temps who wears “trousers” and manly floppy hats, Miriam is a femme fantasy figure, an imprisoned domestic goddess ripe for liberation. The issues are clearly defined. What’s missing is a sense of urgency, even in what should be the ultimate emotion-heightening pressure cooker—a society where every unsanctioned association could be a criminal offense. Writer-director Shamim Sarif, who adapted her own novel, may be so intimately aware of every intended nuance that she took them for granted, understated them to a fault. Everything in The World Unseen is discreetly muted: The images are picturesque and orderly, and composer Shigeru Umebayashi bathes them in Out of Africa syrup. Lisa Ray is a magnificent actress, but she’s still waiting for her first great role.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 5, 2008