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Free State of Jones, The


Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Sean Bridgers, Christopher Berry, Wayne Père

Director: Gary Ross

An epic of the American Civil War, based on truth but very moody and slow-moving outside of two or three excellent action sequences. But too much of the rest of this is dry and dreary, with quite a few long speeches along the way. Most of these come from Newton Knight (a resolute McConaughey), the central figure in the drama, whom we meet as a 'nurse' on a battlefield of 1862.

When a 'kinfolk' boy is killed by his side, Newt resolves to take the boy home to his mother in Jones County, thus deserting the Confederate Army.

He and his wife (Russell) are helped by Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a maid from a nearby plantation, when their son falls ill, but Newt's days at home are numbered, as soldiers with dogs come hunting for him. Escaping with a badly-bitten leg, he is sent by a friend into the swamps, where he joins a group of runaway slaves, headed by Moses (Ali). And he again encounters Rachel, who ferries the men food stolen from the plantation.

In time, the group is joined by more and more deserters. Robbing Confederate mercenaries of their ill-gotten gains, Newt becomes a kind of Robin Hood of the bayou. His wife has left him, but he finds new love with Rachel, and proclaims his growing community to be 'the free men of Jones County.'

When the Rebel HQ sends a troop of soldiers to eliminate the 'Free State of Jones', four from the community decide to give themselves up and are hanged for their pains, leading to a pitched battle at their funeral as Newt and his men (and women) ambush the Confederate troops there.

It's only the first of several bloody encounters, as the film also takes in the horror of the Ku Klux Klan and rather uneasily weaves in brief scenes from a 1947 Mississippi trial in which a one-eighth 'black' descendant of Rachel and Newt is put on trial for marrying a white woman.

The film certainly has some pertinent things to say about racial persecution, but its message is all but blunted by the sheer weight of the narrative, which might be better suited to a mini-series on TV. Performances are OK, but largely unmemorable.

David Quinlan

USA 2016. UK Distributor: StudioCanal. Technicolor.
139 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 25 Sep 2016