Paul Slabolepszy as David Johnson in the movie, ’Mr Johnson’.
Paul Slabolepszy as David Johnson in the movie, ’Mr Johnson’.

Paul Slabolepszy delivers a poignant performance in the bittersweet drama, ’Mr Johnson’

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Sep 7, 2021

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How valuable is time? Depending on who you ask, this is a very loaded question, especially since the arrival of Covid-19.

And that is one of the reasons Paul Slabolepszy was drawn to the script of “Mr Johnson”.

It is relatable. It’s a touching story that addresses society’s prejudice against the elderly, while also stressing the importance of making every minute count.

Despite the lengthy script, Slabolepszy felt a brilliant idea lay at the heart of it.

And then he met cinematographer-turned-director William Collinson.

Screenwriter and director William Collinson. Picture: Supplied

The septuagenarian said: “I really wanted to do the film. I said, ‘If you pick me with the film, I will help you with the way people used to speak in the mid-70s’.”

And it proved to be the perfect fit.

Slabolepszy, who is an award-winning actor, playwright, screenwriter and director, sat down with Collinson to tweak his character’s dialogue and add well-known phrases from the 1970s as well as tighten the narrative.

They added phrases such as “true as bob” and “cruisin’ for a bruisin’ ”.

“The main message for me, funnily enough, is the fact that I’m that age now. I’m 73. In my brain though I’m still very young. But what happens in society is that people tend to look at old people as old farts who don’t know anything anymore. Meanwhile, when you are 73, you have all the experience, you are intelligent and energetic. I still feel I’m 26 in my head,” Slabolepszy said.

The movie opens with David Johnson (Slabolepszy) waking from a coma 47 years after a motorbike crash.

He is understandably disorientated. But more than that, he slipped into a coma when a hip 25-year-old and awoke to find himself “uncool” in a foreign, fast-paced, techno-savvy world.

He has to acclimatise to sliding doors, operating a flat-screen TV, a microwave that looks like a TV, and smartphones. He also learns the difference between a café and an internet café. It’s all confusing.

Fortunately, Dr Ndlovu (Sisanda Henna), psychiatrist Dr Priya Moonsamy (Jailoshini Naidoo), and lawyer Craig Slater (Frank Rautenbach) help him adjust.

“I really enjoyed the experience. His only friend is Sarah (Carla Classen) from the café. She helps him and thinks he’s a poor old man. She thinks he is confused. But the only thing he is confused about is that the world is different.”

As much as there are plenty of poignant scenes in the movie, it is underpinned by humour, too. And, for a 70-something who just woke up from a coma, David has a super fly wardrobe. He also discovers the joys of retail therapy and credit cards.

Slabolepszy said: “He sees these youngsters walking around with their hats and tight jeans and he says, ‘Okay, that’s the way to look if you want to be cool and trendy’.”

Paul Slabolepszy and Jana Cilliers in a scene from “Mr Johnson”. Picture: Supplied

On working with acting doyenne Jana Cilliers, he said: “Yes, I’ve known her since we were both in our early twenties. I’ve known her for almost 50 years.

“She is a family friend, too. She was married to my best friend, Bill Flynn. I think that is why we work so well together in the movie.”

There is a wonderful twist in the story where a harsh truth forces David to question the meaning of his life.

The veteran actor pointed out: “It is kind of sad and funny as well.”

When asked about his favourite scenes, he said: “I like it when I’m talking to the dummy, the shop mannequin. It becomes his friend.

“Also, when he is talking to the psychiatrist, Jailoshini Naidoo, where he talks about what he really wanted to do – ride across Africa, get married and have children.

“And finding his mother’s letter and the photographs. The letter from his mother read: ‘If you get this, just remember, we kept you alive’.”

Mr Johnson explores feelings of loneliness, alienation and purpose. David’s search for his teenage sweetheart is a big part of his journey.

Slabolepszy said: “The older you get, the more experienced and wiser you get. I think it’s important for people to know that.”

There’s a wonderful life lesson in this movie. It’s an adroitly directed, thought-provoking film, where you will laugh and cry, and, most importantly, appreciate the gift of life.

“Mr Johnson” is available on DStv BoxOffice.

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