Goldstone (2016)

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Ivan Sen’s sequel of sorts to the excellent Mystery Road (2013) only enhances his reputation as one of our finest current directors. Using social commentary in subtle, intelligent ways, he returns us to the life of troubled detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he enters the sparsely populated Goldstone district on a missing person’s case. Here, corruption is the underlying force determining the nature of interactions and, inevitably, the outcome of all things. A mining deal framed by a sleazy head of operations (David Wenham) and his co-conspirator, dodgy Mayor (Jackie Weaver), hinges on the assent of an Aboriginal elder (David Gulpilil), complicating Swan’s discovery of a link between his own case and the secret spiriting in and out of town of young Chinese women to use as prostitutes. Swan’s progress is interrupted by his battle with internal demons and an ambitious young local cop, Josh Waters (Alex Russell), full of natural suspicions about interlopers and living well off strong personal relationships with the townsfolk.

Pederson has been gifted the role of a lifetime by Sen. Swan is a fascinating, compelling character, flawed in obvious ways and psychologically wounded by past events but possessing an iron-will determination to do his job even if he gets side-tracked in an occasional alcoholic fog. His belligerence and resistance to the authority of the land are never exhibited in clichéd, overly demonstrative ways. Sen’s dialogue, as it was in Mystery Road, is superb, distinguished by its economy and a rare ability to create credible, animated moments for even brief characters. His subtly inflected social commentary is telegraphed through Swan who, with just a handful of tossed barbs, provides a heartfelt, corrosive reminder of alternate views of unacknowledged aspects of our country’s past and present.

It’s a testament to both director and actor that Swann resonates as he does; as a powerful voice of reason and conviction, compelled by a social imperative, an internalised agony and a sense of aching with the impotence generated by casually cruel injustices. Russell is superb as the confident but malleable young cop, whilst Weaver and Wenham are an acidic duo as the instigators of the town’s descent into a cesspool of degenerative greed and exploitation; neither is above remotely decided upon ‘elimination’ as a means to an end.

Sen’s vision for his characters in Goldstone (2016) is deeply embedded in the context of their surrounds; the landscape binds every perspective with reminders of the harsh and barren place into which anything, including moral perspectives, can evaporate without a trace. Working as his own D.P., Sen propels his camera skyward to further impel us with a bird’s eye of this often falsely beautiful terrain traversed by Swan. His now trademark overhead view – employed judiciously and to delirious effect on occasion – feels remarkably fresh and organically empowering as a descriptive tool. It’s also sensuously inclusive of his audience who are never jolted out of the film’s narrative slipstream in which immersion becomes natural and willingly sought. Sen, as with previous films, composes his own score, and his work here – sparsely used for maximum impact – is his finest yet. It brings moments of transcendence and pain alive with vivid, evocative aural colours that tap into Swan’s fluctuating emotional states within key scenes.

One quibble about the film might be Sen’s slight concession to the creation of a stock action scene moment; it mostly plays out without a hitch even if a couple of slightly unfeasible scenes around it put the most minor dent in the compellingly strong narrative. Otherwise, Goldstone works on almost every level; the material is confidently handled by Sen, the sobering tale full of complexity, nuance and rendered with a deep respect for history, his land and an eternal, soul-searing pursuit for justice. Here’s hoping for Swan’s return in a third feature.

 

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Romper Stomper (1992)

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Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper was a landmark Melbourne film in the year of its release, 1992. Who can forget its in-your-face portrayal of an ugly behavioural extremism provoked by the ever-changing multi-cultural face of the city, especially the expanding Asian contingent in the western suburbs?

It’s here that a gang of dole-bludging neo-Nazi skinheads have claimed the working-class suburb of Footscray as their own, fearlessly protecting its turf against interlopers. They have no qualms about brutally doling out punishment to any “gooks” who happen to stray into their realm. Hondo (Russell Crowe) is their charismatic leader but his charges are a mostly witless bunch of followers; loyal to the cause but with the combined mental ages of your average teenager. Only Davey (Daniel Pollack), Hondo’s reserved best mate, differentiates himself from the rest, his haunted eyes reflecting a quiet intelligence beyond his subservience to Hondo. When Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a disturbed young woman unwittingly walks into Hondo’s local hangout, The Railway Hotel, he’s instantly attracted. Before long he has even caused a public nuisance by shattering a store window just to steal a coat she randomly takes a fancy to.

Though Romper Stomper provoked a storm of outrage at the time, it never sets out to glamourise the skinhead gangs, unless one considers random racist theorizing and public displays of idiocy essential components of a desirable lifestyle. Raw depiction of their toxic, adrenalised rage, that can only lead to self-destruction ultimately, becomes crucial in informing Wright’s anarchic debut feature. In the film’s most memorable highly-charged set-piece, outrage at the slipping away of White Australian values is amplified to fever pitch as a confrontation at the Railway – which a group of Vietnamese are negotiating to buy – spills over into a massive street brawl.

The skinheads are the aggressors initially but an urgent call for backup sees carloads of Vietnamese youths from the nearby streets converging upon the site. A bloody, brilliantly staged ten minute sequence spills out into the streets and then the skinheads’ hideaway where they backtrack in systematic retreat, finally outnumbered. Filmed in-close by cinematographer Ron Hagen with an immediacy that will leave you struggling to catch your breath with the intensity of the hand-to-hand combat, it does beg one question as the skinheads’ hideaway is finally torched: where the hell are the police during all this? They do finally arrive on the scene but it’s well after the majority of the participants have dispersed.

Hondo wants revenge more than anything but his posse is suddenly exposed as a fragmented shell of underprepared young men who, rather than having their instincts sharpened by confrontation, have become dulled by both its associable dangers and the unexpected ferocity of the surging Vietnamese youths. With unwanted clarity, Hondo begins to sees himself as a lone force who will inevitably have the bear the full brunt of responsibility, the others solely dependant on him for direction and survival. His mood worsens as their dwindling core group holes up in an abandoned warehouse; he even turns on Gabe, especially after a raid on her father’s opulent home goes awry, the spoils that were within easy grasp stupidly squandered as they’re sent scurrying into the night, tails between their legs like frightened animals.

The towering presence of Crowe and his impact on the response the film generated can’t be understated; he’s a frightening figurehead for these disaffected, misguided youths, intimidation stamped in every glare and tirade against the tainted bloodlines invading a homeland he sees slipping beyond the domain of whites. McKenzie, in her stunning feature debut, is able to exactingly evoke the duality of Gabe’s inner turmoil with its conflicting forces of strength and vulnerability skillfully meshed to form an empathetic, fascinating composite. Pollack’s post-production suicide still leaves a bittersweet stain on memories of the film now, his dignified performance another real key to its success. Ultimately, Davey proves to be a crucial counterweight to triangulate against the dynamic, extreme personalities of Hondo and Gabe, and it’s he who shows greatest courage when it matters most as the unstable moral low ground of the trio threatens to shift and leave them grasping for purchase.

The years have hardly dulled the impact of this remarkable and increasingly relevant film. Though it can be viewed as an unsettlingly brutal and honest snapshot of Melbourne’s west, the broader implications contained within are hard to shake off. Indeed, Romper Stomper remains a persuasive reminder of the capacity for ugly, primal instincts to assert themselves amidst the squalor and congestion of urban life; to create a platform for tiny spot fires that, spreading into a blackened pool of racial hatred and misunderstanding, have a genuine capacity to begin and sustain a war of attrition that, as history tells us, has no end.

Don’s Party (1976)

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Bruce Beresford’s memorable 1976 film has a reputation of bawdiness and vulgarity mixed with explicit nudity that well and truly precedes it. However, few of these seedy, politically incorrect associations have any basis in truth – at least not by modern standards. Rather, David Williamson’s adaptation of his own play is a caustic and often brutally honest snapshot of Australian society at the time; a portrait deftly contextualized by its single night setting and topicality. It’s October 1969 and a party is being thrown by teacher and failed novelist Don Henderson (John Hargreaves) and his meek, straight-laced suburban wife Kath (Jeanie Drynan). It’s to be a night of revelry and celebration for the polls have closed on Election Day and a Labour victory spearheaded by Gough Whitlam is presumed by all, unseating the Liberals and their leader John Gorton (who makes a neat cameo at the start of the film).

Don’s guests are a colourful, quintessentially Australian bunch. There’s brash and opinionated Mal (Ray Barrett) and his scowling, resentful wife Jenny (Pat Bishop). Simon (Graeme Blundell) is clearly the odd man out with his plastered down hair, pipe and safari suit. His ditzy wife Jody (Veronica Lang) seems like a fish out of water too but she’s far more willing to be enveloped by the group than her husband who, when not making slightly embarrassed neutral small talk, stands around awkwardly in the background as if awaiting summons.

Making a head-turning entrance is artist Kerry (Candy Raymond), a gorgeous, sensuous, dark-eyed vixen who draws the attention of every male eye with her magnetic presence. Her naturally jealous, uptight dentist husband Evan (Kit Taylor) makes the best of the situation whilst barely tolerating those around him who he clearly views with suspicion and contempt. Recently divorced photographer Mack (Graham Kennedy), flashing naked snaps of his ex-wife, is present too. Not far behind him are obnoxious lothario Cooley (Harold Hopkins) and his latest acquisition, Susan (Claire Binney), barely out of her teens and tagging along like an eye-catching but cheap adornment.

Dipping in and out of conversations we see the group overlapping spiritedly: it’s like a cross-section of suburbia with all of our definably Australian traits poking through. Supplementing these are pompous, brash, overbearing moments of posturing that lead to arguments and even the odd naked entanglement. But nearly everything that occurs is undeniably authentic, as is the atmosphere created. The film may seem exposed somewhat by its theatrical origins, but there’s hardly a wrong note in Williamson’s screenplay, even though you could argue some of the blatant sexual propositioning does seem ‘of the era’, or exaggerated at least for the purposes of a little provocation.

The transformation that occurs is a gradual but not entirely unpredictable one. As the night kicks off, the partygoers become consumed by the occasion: there’s buffoonery aplenty; outrageous tall stories are related; sexual proposals both blatant and delicately worded come thick and fast; loud political debate is injected as an adjunct to the most frivolous observations – both setting off another round of egos jostling for superiority in the next conversation. But as the evening wears on, the group dynamic begins to change. With razor-sharp perception, Williamson effectively peels back the social masks, the array of facades keeping civility in place. The quick-witted jibes are soured by personal effrontery; subtle at first, but burrowing deeper as it becomes obvious that the most pointed observations are striking particularly sensitive nerves. Watching the inevitable implosion is compelling stuff, though there’s a grotesquery about it that is slightly uncomfortable too. Fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption, the shock political defeat after promising early indications, petty frustrations and foiled sexual conquests, the party begins to come apart at the seams with nearly everyone reaching boiling point.

Strip away the peripherals that colour your first impressions – the fashion, the hairstyles, and the ghastly décor – and the commonality of Williamson’s characters and themes become most apparent. Each actor wears his or her character like a glove in what amounts to a perfect ensemble. But Barrett and Hargreaves are ultimately the most important figures, with the juiciest roles; Barrett makes Mal both loathsome and pitifully pathetic, whilst Don is weak-willed and subservient, yet hard to hate. Despite the lewdness and brazen sexual objectification, there are strong parts here for the women too – especially Jenny and Kath, the most disadvantaged, emotionally destitute partners who, despite initial impressions, are wallowing in decaying, loveless, deeply unsatisfying marriages that persist for the sake of appearances and little more. The film’s ending is neither evasive nor subservient to any commercial consideration; it’s dark, sobering and uncompromising.

Don’s Party has hardly dated at all; instead it confirms itself as a telling document of hilarious, and yet deadly serious social commentary and one of the great films of the 1970’s. Williamson’s brilliant, savage dialogue sparkles and in exposing us to a few uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our mundane domestic lives, he and Beresford continued cementing their reputations as emerging creative figures of real note.

 

 

 

Spotswood (1992)

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cactus (1986)

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It’s always fascinating to see an artist removed from his or her comfort zone, as acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert was in Paul Cox’s 1986 feature Cactus, written by the director with Norman Kaye and Bob Ellis. Having to rely on her instincts whilst coping with the demands of performing in another language, Huppert slowly begins to loosen up after the awkward early scenes in which her slightly stilted movements seem more a result of Cox’s fastidious devotion to moving his actors from point A to point B like wind-up toys.

Huppert is Colo, a young French woman holidaying alone in rural Victoria with friends of her family, leaving a waning marriage behind to “find herself”. Things go horribly awry however when she asks friend Tom (Kaye) for a leisurely few moments at the wheel of his car, only to crash it within minutes. A shard of glass pierces her left eye, rendering it sightless, a condition that becomes more dire when a specialist reveals the cancerous impact this will have on her right eye. Colo is faced with the excruciating choice of either having her left eye removed, possibly stabilizing her limited sight in the other eye, or leaving it untended, resulting in total blindness.

Feeling ever more isolated in a foreign country, she’s consoled by Tom and his wife Bea (Monica Maughan) who integrate her more substantially into their daily life as she contemplates the world from a new, but dwindling, perspective. They introduce her to Robert (Robert Menzies), a blind friend who devotes much of his time to tending the mass of cactus plants on his property. He becomes not only a friend but a symbolic assurance of her capacity to beat down the demons that claim her at night, tiny sparks of tangled memory firing in her subconscious with a malicious intent as the fateful crash is relived in her dreams.

Ironically, as Colo’s predicament worsens – with time running out for a rational decision – her “eyes” are opened to the possibility of coping without sight by Robert’s attentive devotion and sensitive probing of her state of mind. As she spends more time in his presence, he becomes a blanket to cling to in comfort, like someone reaching across raging rapids for the reassuring embrace of a figure that’s already crossed to the other side.

Cox’s film begins to take on a more coherent, believable shape as it progresses, though it still wavers on occasion and the subtext of the cacti and their metaphoric usage for Robert’s nurturing, calming side is hardly an enthralling one. At times, some of the sidetracking and below-par support players – especially Sean Scully as the robotic doctor – threaten to derail the interesting dynamic of Colo and Robert’s burgeoning relationship. Then there’s the occasional, bizarrely incongruous scene thrown in for good measure, like a horrible old lady beating a piano to within an inch of its life whilst garbling some wretched comedic ballad in what is one of the more off-putting scenes of supposed domestic conviviality you’re ever likely to see.

Huppert is a great actress, even though she’s often accused of being a clinical technician whose intellectual coldness inhibits access to her characters. She steadily grows into this role, providing more than just exotic compensation for a threadbare plot as the confused Colo whose life is given sharper focus by her unfortunate accident. The amiable Menzies is excellent too, revealing believable vulnerabilities as a man whose own life is altered by his meeting with this defenceless woman, shaking him free of the consolatory aloneness he’s clung to in the darkness until now.

Cox’s direction is infuriating languid at times but impressive when projecting the dark fears that plague Colo. Best of all are the vivid snippets of the accident, a wordless scene of lonely Colo, lost in an anonymous crowd, swaying in emotionless consternation near Flinders St. station, and a slickly edited, nightmarish dream sequence of an eye being surgically cut away from its fleshy hold as decision time closes in.

Though perhaps not one of the more memorable films of Paul Cox’s lengthy career, Cactus retains more than just the curiosity value of showcasing an internationally renowned actress – even more so today – in a pivotal role. This sensitively handled drama, marked by unusual symbolism, rural trappings and the endlessly mysterious allure of Huppert is well worth revisiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My First Wife (1984)

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The late Paul Cox may not have believed it possible at the time of its conception, but much later he considered his dynamic anatomy of a failing marriage, My First Wife (1984) – drawing upon elements of his own life – as a perverse comedy of sorts. Hindsight, with its attendant remarkable healing properties, must have really worked its magic over the years for him to view this harrowing dissection of a loving couple’s disintegrating relationship in such a different light.

John (John Hargreaves) is a radio host and classical musician whose own compositions are being performed a local troupe, including his wife of ten years, Helen (Wendy Hughes). John’s also a perfectionist who seems to have a natural affinity with taking charge of large groups of people as well as his own destiny. However, after another night of fruitlessly trying to convince Helen to make love to him, she decides to confront him with a shock admission: she’s no longer in love with him and wants out of their marriage. It’s a devastating blow to John who finds it an inexplicable confession, a rash conclusion drawn from the pressures of their lives impinging upon their desire for one another.

Much of the blackly comedic material derives from the absurdity with which John views his disintegrating marriage; it seems like an incomprehensible sick joke when he’s first confronted by Helen’s decision, and with her still present in the house it begins to take on the qualities of a haunting. Piercing the heart of his distress is the belief that both of them should be putting the interests of their child before any consideration of their individual happiness.

His perspective is coloured by extreme arrogance however as he admits to occasional infidelities when speculation is raised about whether the reasons for Helen’s change of heart are due to a third party. To some extent it is, with Helen involved in a callously remote affair with one of their co-workers, but no amount of reasoning will placate John, and his breakdown becomes a physical as well as emotional one. Though both make compromises to foster the illusion that something can be retrieved from this mess for the sake of their child, the damage has been done and the marriage is doomed, grinding to a halt in the slew of delusions that have held it together with the faintest of false hopes for years.

Hargreaves gives one of his most dominating performances in a role that asks him to call on almighty reserves of anguish. Impressively, he works his way inside the skin of this idealist whose life is suddenly thrown out of alignment, calm waters muddied by a certainty now removed from its frame of reference. Hughes isn’t asked to produce such extremes of emotional response but neither is she unsympathetic; in asking for release from an increasingly untenable situation, Helen is simply evoking the needs of a disempowerment that has troubled her for years, the weight of commitment and a fading, but pervasive love, preventing her so often from the simpler solution of walking away.

As with his finest work, Cox’s direction adds layers of subtle complexity, with images of a rattling train used as a recurring motif to stress the isolation of these travelers and the temporary nature of their complex interactions. There’s an almost European sensibility at work here in the screenplay by Cox and collaborator Bob Ellis, honing in a man’s suffering for the pure pleasure of watching the volatile reactions it generates. This is further emphasised by the startling, often overpowering use of John’s operatic favourites which bleed into the film’s soundtrack; especially potent is the use of Orff’s soaring Carmina Burana which saturates many scenes, a perfect aural accompaniment to John’s wordless surrender to his darkest fears; for added effect, Cox uses close-ups of John’s face to marginalize his distress and give it context in his suddenly cloistered, isolated world, clinging to the pain of rejection.

It’s not impossible to understand why the director sees My First Wife as a strange type of comedy; presumably it was a grim catharsis for him, projecting such personally relevant material before the eyes of the world. His reflections on the fickle nature of relationships are ones easily identified with however and this remains a bleak and powerful film with a spellbinding central performance from the late, great Hargreaves at its core.

Lonely Hearts (1982)

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Possibly one of Paul Cox’s most benign, straight-forward films, Lonely Hearts (1982) is the modest tale of two unlikely prospective partners and their pursuit of something substantial to fill the gaping void in their personal lives. Distinguished by its tender honesty, the screenplay by Cox and John Clarke has no qualms about exposing the embarrassment inherent in confronting the opposite sex armed with only a minimum of knowledge about what makes them tick. Deftly, the complicated realities of social intercourse are reduced to easily relatable conflicts with all their stifling inhibitions and mild neuroses opened like raw wounds for our entertainment.

Peter (Norman Kaye), a lonely middle-aged piano tuner with a loyal dachshund and a discreetly positioned toupee, has just lost his mother. Faced with the daunting prospect of filling the emptiness created by her death he turns his attention to a dating agency who has contacted him with a potential match. He’s pleasantly surprised to learn that Patricia (Wendy Hughes) is a significantly younger woman than the ideal he’s always had in mind.

The scepticism secretly shared by the pair about any future prospects is matched only by their general ineptness at relating to fellow human beings. Both are shy, internal characters and their awkward early dates are painful to watch but in a funny nostalgic way. Let’s be honest – who hasn’t lived moments like these, prodding openings in the nearly non-existent conversation only to exacerbate matters by saying something utterly stupid? Rather than banishing the embarrassment, their trivial non-sequiturs only underline the divide between reality and the wishful thoughts clumsily banging around in their heads. Inevitably they find do some common ground, and curiosity piqued, move onward with hesitant, fearful steps into a kind of calamitous sense of the unknown that their almost reluctant contact has manufactured.

Peter finds solace and an outlet for his emotional containment in a local theatre group and in some of the film’s more entertaining scenes there’s a flamboyant supporting role for the larger than life Jon Finlayson as George, the theatre director who does his utmost to point the fumbling duo in the right direction. There’s able support from Julia Blake too as Peter’s nagging sister who it seems, is more disappointed than anyone in his solitary, cloistered lifestyle.

Naturally Hughes is the star of the show and a treat to watch, deconstructing her aesthetic beauty for the dowdy, straight-laced Patricia, a repressed and inhibited creature of habit. It’s quite a transformation for a woman as gorgeous as she was at the time, assuming the mind-set of a fragile creature whose aversion to contact with the opposite sex is finally overtaken by a more basic need for a companion in life.

Kaye is equally good, revealing a delicate touch as the slightly odd but empathetic Peter; in one particularly funny scene he turns up for a piano-tuning appointment pretending to be blind, an unnecessary and outlandish eccentricity perhaps, but an endearing one like many of his qualities. Even when he oversteps the mark a little too far in his exuberance at the chance to take Patricia, finally, to bed, we find ourselves forgiving him. Here, the culmination of their courting seems headed for such perfectly natural progress, but of course Patricia’s sexual inhibition rears its prominant head in the nick of time to save the couple from regretting a roll in the hay before they’re truly ready. It’s a delicate balance this pair is trying to strike and Cox’s affection for his creations is borne out with every motivation and reaction attributed to them.

It gets to the point where you fear the couple are eternally destined to be their own worst enemies, and Patricia’s stuck-up parents (Vic Gordon and Irene Inescort), who’ve obviously kept a tight rein on their daughter through very unsubtle manipulation, only make progress all the more difficult. But in the end, stripped down to the simplicity of needing companionship despite the odds against them finding it, this unlikely couple discover they’re prepared to grapple with destiny a little longer and push all barriers aside. It culminates in a fitting final scene that plays out like a perfect, fated first meeting repeated again, only this time filled with innocent wonder.

Lonely Hearts has stood the test of time well, remaining one of the late Paul Cox’s most enjoyable works, and a timely reminder of how his refreshingly honest examinations of the human condition need not always be remembered as bleak, morose ones. On a limited budget, but the simple mechanics of solid, humanistic writing as his most fundamental tool, he created cinematic magic yet again.

 

 

 

Snowtown (2011)

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How do you depict the darkest chapter of Australian criminal history without either sensationalising it or falling prey to a steadfast loyalty to the facts that renders the story stale and perfunctory? First time filmmaker Justin Kurzel has managed to walk a fine line between these two extremes, in the process pulling off the unthinkable – a genuinely great film, one that reconfigures the infamous South Australian murder spree of the late 1990’s into a bold cinematic document that will resonate and chill audiences for the portrait it offers of a fathomless emptiness that cannot be rationally theorised by psychology textbooks.

The world inhabited by the people of Snowtown may not be the commercially viable perception of Australian life many seek to enhance nourishment of our national consciousness but in dramatic terms it succeeds on every level despite the often uncomfortable subject matter it addresses; topics like incest and paedophilia generally tend to leave a bad aftertaste in audiences’ mouths. But Snowtown is horribly bloated with relevance in its examination of guilt, societal ills and the apathy that allows evil to thrive; within lies a terrifying reminder of what surges beneath the mundane exterior of suburban life, as dormant and unsuspecting as a cancer waiting to take shape in our bloodstream.

When an impoverished family, staunchly led by mother Liz Harvey (Louise Harris) allow family friend John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) into their home, little do they realise the long-term implications; they’re effectively providing a haven for a monster, a man who imagines himself a father figure capable of drawing people together to defeat a common enemy. His focus lands squarely on Jaime (Lucas Pittaway), a forlorn, dispirited figure sleepwalking through his life like a ghost waiting to be led to an exorcism. Within a short time, Bunting looms largest in his sight – a figure with sharply defined edges who shapes him into a follower through an adherence to his notions of routine and discipline. It’s the commencement of a dark initiation that will draw Jaime inexorably into becoming an accomplice to a murderous spree.

Though the tone of the film couldn’t be grimmer, Snowtown achieves a lyrical dark poetry in its sublime, admirably suppressed diversion into this heart of darkness – an evil emanating from Bunting firstly from a despise for homosexuals and paedophiles before progressing to a senseless broader predilection for ruthless revenge. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant’s portrait is admirably detached in its cold-blooded recounting of the crumbling domesticity camouflaging these crimes.

The performances are sublimely good across the board; the fact that most are film debutants, whilst others still are non-professionals, makes the uniformity all the more remarkable. Henshall exudes the magnetism required to portray Bunting and his fatally attractive contradictions; we are readily persuaded of the man’s capacity to subtly engineer shifting dynamics without this frayed, downtrodden community by imposing his will through gentle reassurances and a verbal dexterity that allows him to take charge without being overly demonstrative in their presence.

In assessing Pittaway’s contribution an obvious parallel is the equally startling performance of James Frecheville in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010). Both are crime films with a basis in fact; both are stories largely viewed through the eyes of innocent youths drawn into a destructive web of illegality and moral corruption. Though Animal Kingdom’s world seems relatively tame compared to the relentless bleakness offered by Snowtown, both debuting actors rise to the challenge, impressively internalising much of the turmoil and anguish that compels them to the brink of adulthood before their time.

Kurzel’s direction, in concert with the gritty, in your face stylings of Animal Kingdom cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s camerawork, gives the film an uncompromising, naturalistic aesthetic that cements its future status as a landmark work. At key junctures, the director uses dialogue-free reflections to inject potent symbolic moments into the narrative, like a raised shot late in the game of a car poised at a crossroads before continuing on, eschewing a redemptive detour. Another moment too stands out: there is no more painful reminder or encapsulation of innocence lost than a constricted Jaime’s walk-out from the unfolding horrors of his brother’s torture, only to view with abject despair the innocuous sight of three contented children strolling by on the other side of the street with their bicycles, oblivious to the mortifying, soul-destroying crime taking place within a stone’s throw.

Snowtown is a stunner, a demanding, visceral, utterly engrossing movie experience from first frame to last. With it’s painful, fact-based context, searing performances and instinctive direction this is a film that will continue to burrow into the subconscious of all who witness it. The final scenes generate a remarkably palpable tension, mainly through the hypnotic use of Jed Kurzel’s intuitive, understated score; even as we guess at the outcome, a sense of electricity sparks the heart-stopping premonition of doom that descends.