Film review – The Eye of the Storm (2011)

The Eye of the Storm: Sir Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) and Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling)
Sir Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) and Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling)

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 Eye of the Storm: Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis)
Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis)

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.

The Eye of the Storm: Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) and Lotte (Helen Morse)
Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) and Lotte (Helen Morse)

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’.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Your memory serves you well David! Why do I suddenly feel like I’ve been busted?

    But seriously, I was a bit ambivalent when I first saw this film. I liked it, but didn’t think it was anything special. It was during a second viewing that it all tumbled into place for me and I was left with the response that I’ve hopefully now expressed in this review. I wasn’t even going to bother writing anything about it originally as I had so little to say.

    I can’t recall the last time a re-watch of a film has caused such a change of heart for me, but I’m really glad it did.

  2. actually thomas, jim sharman’s 1979 film The Night, the Prowler was the first screen adaptation of a patrick white novel.

  3. Thanks Greg. I probably should have mentioned The Night, the Prowler. However, I ended up not mentioning it because it’s not an novel adaptation but an adaptation of a short story, which I believe originally appeared in White’s 1974 anthology The Cockatoos.

  4. ***Spoiler warning***

    Your explanation of the title of the book, in particular The Eye doesn’t convince; and what about the final pages? Here the film fails to provide the least insight, with Dorothy even returning to the death-bed!

    Lotte’s suicide is everything, and the film misses the point. After Elizabeth’s death, White’s treatment of the two siblings is ironically pleasant, but more scathing than ever (as with the aged mother in final pages of The Twyburn Affair, which followed our novel).

  5. Thanks for providing the comparisons to the novel Gladys. I usually try not to when reviewing adaptations as I’m personally far more interested in how well the film works as a work in its own right, rather than focusing on issues of fidelity to the source material. However, I know it’s hard when you love and know the original novel so well.

    I wasn’t really attempting to explain the title of the novel though. I was simply evoking it in relation to the film’s visual style.

  6. ***Spoiler warning***

    I appreciate, Thomas, that your concern is not with the book but a comparison is instructive.

    As for the film, I am particularly miffed by the absence of redemption so prominent in the ending of the book. What raises Patrick White’s book far above the universally grim and sleazy is the plight of Lotte, the German refugee. As Elizabeth Hunter’s cook and entertainer, Lotte has found sanctuary in the eye of the tumultuous storm that has long enveloped her. Early in the book, a poignant exchange on acting, between her and Basil, both actors, contrasts starkly the real and the fake.

    In the book, after Elizabeth’s death, White’s treatment of the two siblings is ironically pleasant but more scathing than ever. And it is with Lotte the book ends. Almost everyone has left for good, and the last two are about to leave. The saintly Sister Mary de Santis chats with Lotte, and says her goodbyes. The saint leaves, and the German cook is alone in the old house – alone, and only now in the full blast of The Terrible Storm.

    But in the film, there is nothing of the numinous: nothing to relieve or redeem the grim and sleazy. Nothing but a rather silly and cryptic ending, absent from the book, involving Basil’s new play. I think Patrick would be appalled.

  7. Thomas, you’re not the only critic who changed their view about Schepisi’s Eye of the Storm after a second viewing. I was listening to 3 Oz film critics for some community radio station where one of them, who didn’t care for the film on a first viewing, totally changed their mind after a second. What compelled that critic to view it a second time, he didn’t say. But he did say he now saw and understood the complexities of the characters. The other 2 critics weren’t prepared to see it a second time, yet. Eye of the Storm has received a number of 4/5 star critical raves (from both critics, moviegoers, and even former NSW Premiere Bob Carr on his blog). But of the ones who weren’t impressed, it would be interesting to see how many would change their mind on a second viewing as you have. Interestingly, that film can have that effect on you.

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