Film review – The Eye of the Storm (2011)

13 September 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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An interview with Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech

20 December 2010
The King's Speech director Tom Hooper

The King's Speech director Tom Hooper

In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays King George VI who unexpectedly became the king of England after his father’s death and his brother’s abdication. With a cripplingly debilitating speech impediment he worked extensively with an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to prepare him for a life of public speaking.

This interview was recorded on Wednesday 15 December 2010 and then played on Film Buff’s Forecast (Triple R, 3RRR 102.7FM) on Saturday 18 December 2010.

Download link (interview running time = 10:01)

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Film review – Bran Nue Dae (2009)

13 January 2010

Willie (Rocky McKenzie)

The latest film by Indigenous Australian filmmaker Rachel Perkins (Radiance, One Night the Moon) is a road trip musical set in 1969. Indigenous teenager Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) dutifully heads off to a boarding school in Perth only to then run away in order to get back to his home in Broome so he can declare his love for local singer Rosie (2006 Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy). Along the way Willie teams up with a homeless Indigenous elder named Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and a couple of hippy backpackers (one of whom is played by Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins). With Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) from Willie’s boarding school in hot pursuit, the journey home involves much singing, a bit of dancing and a few wacky hi-jinks.

Bran Nue Dae began as a collection of songs written in the early 1980s by composer, musician and playwright Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles. Chi later used these songs to create the original stage musical Bran Nue Dae, which successfully debuted at the 1990 Perth Festival. Twenty years later this new film adaptation feels exactly like a twenty year old show that may have worked wonderfully as a piece of community theatre but not so on the big screen. The film is so incredibly well–intentioned and full of energy that you almost hate yourself for finding it so twee but overall the prevailing pantomime aesthetic of Bran Nue Dae is just too strong. The over-the-top performances would usually be suitable for this style of musical romp but the story, songs and dance numbers are not strong enough to sustain such hammy performances.

Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and Annie ('Missy' Higgins)

Many of the song lyrics are actually very poignant and wickedly ironic but any sense of their sly and cheeky political commentary is lost in the film’s very trite approach. The presence of Bran Nue Dae’s charms are detectable but they are overshadowed by sight gags such as Father Benedictus taking a dump by the side of the road and jokes involving Magda Szubanski, as a character named Roadhouse Betty, throwing herself at every man she meets (it’s funny because she is a large woman being sexually aggressive).

Bran Nue Dae is not completely without merit and Ernie Dingo is especially a joy to watch as Uncle Tadpole. Unlike most of the rest of the cast, Dingo knows how to have fun with a character without completely overacting. Tom Budge (Ten Empty) also gives a very funny performance as a German hippy and manages to bring a bit of an extra dimension to an otherwise very stereotypical character. Otherwise there is little that appeals about Bran Nue Dae. It is the type of film that you could enjoy if you could just let go and surrender yourself to it but far too many cringe worthy moments constantly prevent you from being able to do so.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – $9.99 (2008)

5 October 2009
Albert (voiced by Barry Otto) and Angel (voiced by Geoffrey Rush)

Albert (voiced by Barry Otto) and Angel (voiced by Geoffrey Rush)

Based on a series of short stories about the meaning of life by Israeli writer Etgar Keret and featuring silicon puppets brought to life with stop-motion animation, $9.99 is a sort of animated, metaphysical Short Cuts. A homeless-man returns to earth as an angel, a slacker with girlfriend issues hangs out with his three miniature friends, a repossession officer dates a model who has a disturbing fetish and an unemployed 28-year-old discovers the answer to life in a mail-order book. All occurring within the same apartment block, these stories, and a few more, are skilfully weaved together by New York based writer/director Tatia Rosenthal.

$9.99 is an Israeli-Australian co-production so while the impressive local voice cast (including Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and Claudia Karvan) are Australian and while the script has been adapted to suit the Australian vernacular, the look, setting and themes of $9.99 don’t belong to any specific part of the world so are universal in their neutrality. The animation is unfortunately a little ugly, which distracts from the final product, but it does facilitate the blend of Magical Realism, macabre and whimsy that distinguish this curious film.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 338, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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