Mark Joffe’s endearingly quirky period comedy has somehow been relegated to the anonymous ranks of films long forgotten, despite some noteworthy attributes. If nothing else, Spotswood, released in 1992 – just a year after The Silence of the Lambs – reveals the depth of Anthony Hopkins’s commitment to scouring the globe for projects that interested him. From Hannibal Lecter he progressed to Errol Wallace, a genial, mild-mannered independent consultant asked to assess the financial feasibility of Ball’s Moccasins. Here, he finds a modest, small-knit community of employees whose lackadaisical work ethic seems like an extension of the social activities most people reserve for the weekends. In the film’s funniest line, Wallace describes his first impression of the place as “like visiting my grandfather’s house and finding it full of people”.
Run with the feathery, lenient touch of founder, Mr. Ball (Alwyn Kurts), the company is quickly sinking into a trough of fading profits and irrelevance in the changing world of the 1960s. Though the old man talks enthusiastically of modernisation, his office display windows tell a very different tale – of someone deluded by past success and headed for an inevitable brush with insolvency. Only one person has his eye on the bigger picture; company salesman Kim Barrett (Russel Crowe) has ambitions to take over and reshape Ball’s from the ground up, and he has no hesitation in steering Wallace in the appropriate direction to set the old man’s downfall in motion.
Beyond the quaintly observed eccentricities of these people, another central story evolves parellel to that of Wallace. Lowly employee Carey (Ben Mendelsohn), fondly referred to by his father Robert (Bruno Lawrence) as “a dreamer,” allows his crush for Mr. Ball’s glamorous daughter Cheryl (Rebecca Rigg) to blindside him. In the process he loses sight of the one girl offering him genuine attention, the homely, tomboyish Wendy (Toni Collette). Their easy mateship is a barrier that anyone with minimal insight would be able to pierce after the first few hints of interest. But not poor affable Carey, who’s constantly being shown up for his deficiencies in making sense of the opposite sex by cocky best mate and local Lothario, Frank (Dan Wyllie).
The neat and gentlemanly Wallace gradually comes to understand what makes this community tick even as an instinct within encourages detachment, to view the workers as static numbers that need trimming for his final report. Due to the dire state of affairs in Ball’s financial records, his stay becomes an extended one. This allows him to observe the locals in greater detail, and naturally the more he sees of them the more he appreciates their simple values and enthusiasm for life. Such things may not translate into efficiency on the shop floor but they’re the oil that keeps the machinery in – admittedly slow – motion, and for Mr. Ball, the boss we’d all love to have, that’s all that matters. Wallace even gets roped into becoming a participant in their remote controlled slot-car rally, much to the chagrin of his icily remote wife Caroline (Angela Punch McGregor).
An innutritious haze of antiquity hovers over Spotswood like a mist, with cinematographer Ellery Ryan capturing both the essence of a forgotten period and the murky industrialized playground of Melbourne’s west. Here, where it’s all smokestacks and powerlines, the sun seems on permanent vacation and every surface and item of clothing seems muted by the drab design of soiled browns, greens and yellows.
The star-studded cast, many in roles before they became famous, are outstanding. Hopkins is as efficient as ever, though in a role he could sleepwalk through (even on a bad day). Mendelsohn, confirming his natural predisposition to playing awkward, ungainly young men at the time, is the perfect choice for Carey. Crowe, even as a secondary character, reveals the first signs of a signature arrogance that would define his screen presence in so many subsequent roles; interestingly, his appearance here was sandwiched between his initial breakthrough, Proof (1991), and the star-making Romper Stomper later in 1992. This was Collette’s very first feature film and she displays a striking naturalness in limited screen time, replete with that winning, toothy smile that would carry over into mega-hit Muriel’s Wedding two years later.
Spotswood certainly doesn’t cover any new ground, but it never falls victim to that common affliction of self-consciously inserting peculiarities into its characters in an effort to blot out their potentially fatal ordinariness. Rather, it exudes genuine charm and affection for these salt-of-the-earth workers mired in menial jobs they’ve learnt to embrace rather than anonymously wither away.
The resolution proves to be both an equitable and thoroughly believable one. With economic realities hovering over him like a noxious, forbidding cloud, which way will Mr. Ball duck to worst the worst repercussions? Ultimately, the answer itself is the best summation you could provide for Spotswood: a delicately poised equation that pits dollars and cents against the most fundamental notion of human dignity, and keeps this genuinely moving fable-of-sorts grounded. Though unassuming and rough around the edges – no more evident than in the sight of a boom mic straying into one shot in Wallace’s home – Spotswood deserves a re-evaluation; in short, a small film with a very big heart.