The Eye of the Storm is the first Patrick White novel to be adapted into a film. Released in 1973, the same year White won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Australian of the Year Award, it something of an upper-class Australian King Lear, set in Sydney in the early 1970s with its tale of a dying matriarch and the sycophantic adult children who come to visit her to elicit final favours. At first glance this film adaptation feels more like the type of historical miniseries that was popular in the 1980s on Australian television, largely due to an intrusive easy-listening jazz score and the late introduction of a sequence set in the country when the film felt like it was wrapping up. However, aside from these minor drawbacks, a closer examination reveals a film rich in style and characterisation to draw on the complexities of White’s dense novel.
The almost deceitful brilliance of this film, hidden under an enjoyable dysfunctional family narrative, has a lot to do with director Fred Schepisi, whose deft touch comes from 35 years of making films in Australia and Hollywood (and also England in the case of the brilliant Last Orders in 2001). There is little in Schepisi’s films to betray his presence as the director, other than a complete command of film style and a confidence in his actors.
The familial ‘love triangle’ at the core of the film – and the possibility of incestuous relations do get hinted at – contains the dying socialite Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) and her ungrateful children: flamboyant actor Sir Basil (Geoffrey Rush) and divorced princess Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis). Rampling’s performance and makeup create a startling contrast between the free spirited and sexually aggressive 60-something Elizabeth as depicted in the flashbacks and the sick and increasingly delusional older woman, whom Basil and Dorothy have arrived to contend with. The lavish design and dominance of red in Elizabeth’s bedroom evokes the bedroom in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, which similarly explores the mixed feelings the characters had for a dying family member.
Rush is superb as Basil, an extroverted and lecherous man of the theatre who is deeply yearning for genuine intimacy. Likewise, Davis is wonderful as the prickly and uptight Dorothy. Both characters are slightly larger than life, but Rush and Davis maintain a sense of controlled hysteria without ever falling into caricature. Also impressive are the supporting cast, especially the trio of women who play the ‘downstairs’ counterparts to the Hunter family ‘upstairs’ characters. Day nurse Flora (Alexandra Schepisi) resembles Elizabeth, both craving and promising affection, alternating between cruel and kind. At one point she even wears the same white dress that Elizabeth once wore to seduce with. Night nurse Mary (Maria Theodorakis) and Dorothy are both repressed, albeit for different reasons, but share a feeling of neglect. Finally, the housekeeper and Holocaust survivor Lotte (Helen Morse) shares with Basil an almost pathological need to perform as if that is the only way to win Elizabeth’s affections.
Needless to say, the characters of The Eye of the Storm are a troubled, complex and frequently dislikeable bunch. Even the kind, sensible and faithful family lawyer Arnold Wyburd (John Gaden) doesn’t come away unscathed. And yet, this is what makes them compelling, endearing and recognisable characters. The three lead characters may have lived a life of privilege and wealth, but beneath the surface there is decay and things are falling apart. Schepisi frequently nods to this with cutaway close-up shots of rotting food and torn clothes, hidden amid the luxury. The camera is frequently in a state of flight; gradually zooming in and out of shots to create the sensation that any sense of calm is momentary and great forces or turmoil are swelling up within. As the title says, we’re in the eye of the storm. Towards the end of the film, the visual storm metaphor is extended beautifully in a key sequence that seems to have been lit with light reflected off water to connect the present to the past within the context of the film.
The Eye of the Storm is a terrific accomplishment and hopefully will inspire other filmmakers to explore White’s work. The film functions as a satisfying drama, with a surprisingly high number of light-hearted comic moments, and audiences have the option of looking further into it to grapple with its exploration of ‘the possibility of human affection’.