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Wish You Were Here (Movie Review)

May 10, 2012

Regular readers here know how I love a novella. It occurred to me that feature films that are shorter than 90 mins could be seen as the cinematic equivalent of novellas. At 89 minutes, the recent Australian movie, Wish You Were Here, reminds me a little of a novella. The story is focused, with no digressions into side stories. In other words, the minor characters are there only to serve the purpose of the main story, and not to have lives or stories of their own. And, like a good novella, it doesn’t slow down in the middle but engages you at the beginning and keeps you involved – and guessing – right to the closing credits.

The basic plot concerns a young woman, Steph, and her new boyfriend, Jeremy, deciding to holiday in Cambodia where he has business (hmmm…) dealings. Steph asks her sister Alice, who is pregnant with her third baby, to come along with husband Dave. Initially resistant, Dave is convinced by Alice to have this final fling before their family expands again.  At the end of the week, Jeremy goes missing and the other three return to Sydney, but there are clearly secrets. Some characters, we suspect, know more than they are letting on. Gradually, through current action and flashbacks, the story comes out, with devastating consequences along the way for those involved.

The film has been billed by some as a “psychological thriller” but I wouldn’t call it that. It didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat, but there is mystery, tension and drama.  The production company, Aquarius Films, describes it as a “psychological drama/mystery”. That’s more like it.

As you’d expect, given its plot-line, the film does play to some familiar stereotypes, that of middle-class white Australians enjoying cheap holidays in SE Asia, complete with alcohol and party drugs, and a hint of that darker story of drug smuggling hovering in the background. These are not, however, the story’s target, so the stereotypes work as background or introduction rather than as the main fare. The main target or theme relates to the decisions you make, the things they set in motion, and how you handle things once started. From these spring those bigger universals of love, commitment and forgiveness. In the film, the first critical decision is that of going to Cambodia, and it is followed by some stupid and terrible decisions and actions taken while there. These set in motion behaviours and further decisions that threaten to pull apart what was nicely and economically established at the beginning to be a stable and happy marriage. But, I won’t be more explicit than this to avoid spoilers.

Instead I’ll talk a little about the production. Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Felicity Price), the two main characters, are convincing and sympathetic (even when you want to give them a shake!) – and their two very young children played by Isabelle Austin-Boyd and Otto Page are stunningly natural. I was intrigued to notice that Felicity Price also co-wrote the script with debut director and husband, Kieran Darcy-Smith.

Stylistically speaking, the film uses techniques that seem popular now: fast cutting, a handheld camera look, and shifting focus. The fast cutting approach worked well to convey the colour and action of a SE Asian holiday. It also helped build up the tension as the implications of what happened started to tell on and derail the characters and their relationships. You do have to concentrate, however, to make sure you don’t miss a step in the narrative sequence or a clue to what is going on. I’m not quite so enamoured, though, of the shifting focus – just as I wasn’t in The Hunter. I was rarely convinced that it made a difference to the impact of the scenes in which it’s used – but maybe that’s just me.

Wish You Were Here was premiered at Sundance this year which is, in itself, a recommendation. And while it didn’t, for me, have quite the punch of Animal Kingdom (which came out of the same Blue Tongue Films stable), its considered exploration of the ramifications of making morally poor (and poor moral!) decisions make it a challenging and engrossing movie. Good novella, this film!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2012 9:23 am

    Good on you Whispering! I love it when you apply your skills to movies as well as books. I found this one the best Australian psychological drama since Lantana and agree that the acting was convincing and sympathetic. Unlike in many films which jump back and forth in time and place (and you can’t reread to work out what’s happening!) I didn’t find it hard to keep track of this one as it was so cleverly done.

    • May 10, 2012 9:45 am

      Why thanks Bushmaid. It’s a while since I’ve done a movie review and at first I wasn’t sure I could do it! but as we drove home a few ideas started to formulate in my head so I gave it a shot. I do like to give Aussie movies a bit of a guernsey.

      I agree it was well done, clearly, but some in our party did miss some major clues such as, without spoiling, the scene with Dave as the film’s title comes onto the screen. That scene is so well done … It tantalises without giving anything away and directs your focus as the film proceeds, doen’t it?

      The title is good too … So multilayered … I didn’t mention that.

  2. May 10, 2012 10:29 am

    There’s a wonderful British film (based on the early life of British Madame Cynthia Price “Madame Cyn”) that has the same name and I thought that was the film under review.

    This one sounds great, so thanks the post. I just watched The Slap (enjoyed it) and Snowtown (a grueling watch).

    • May 10, 2012 8:08 pm

      Thanks Guy … even though I got you here, unknowingly, under false pretences! Glad you enjoyed The slap … it was intelligently done. Have you read the book?

      I missed Snowtown … I should try to see it some time.

      • May 10, 2012 11:56 pm

        IMO Snowtown wasn’t as good a film as Animal Kingdom. I came to Snowtown knowing about the case, but someone who watched the film with me had no idea what the recordings (played in the film) meant. Bunting’s attention would move to someone and then there’d be a recording.

        One murder was shown and it was extremely hard to watch. I think that had to be shown but the director was wise to keep the full gruesomeness to a minimum with this one scene and clever to concentrate, instead, on the sub-culture Bunting established with his fellow societal outcasts. An amazing story but hard to watch. One of the films that doesn’t give you much hope for humanity.

        I have The Slap here and I intended to read it before watching the film, but it didn’t work out that way.

  3. Meg permalink
    May 11, 2012 8:13 am

    I am glad you did a review on Wish You Were Here. I was in Cambodia last month with a friend, and on return to Australia we saw the movie. When we were in Cambodia we stayed clear of trouble spots but knew they existed as hotel staff and tour director told us not to go out at night. I loved the movie and agree with Bushmaid that the suspense was equal to Lantana. I thought the acting was superb, and it was a good thinking movie. I think it is great that you review Australian movies.

    Meg

    • May 11, 2012 9:07 am

      Why thanks Meg … and I can’t disagree with anything you say! That’s interesting though about being warned about areas to avoid. One of the things that came through clearly in the film (or am I just a dowser) was how excessive drinking and the taking of party drugs can affect your judgment!

      Lantana is a film I could certainly see again … the mood and tone of that film was so beautifully created and sustained.

  4. May 11, 2012 8:27 pm

    Wonderful review; I must admit I read a couple of newspaper reviews of this and didn’t much want to see it, but you’ve made me more inclined.

    Except sometimes these stories make me feel unAustralian because I haven’t done the el-cheapo drug-fuelled am-I-coming-back-pregnant Asian holidays.

    • May 11, 2012 9:32 pm

      Thanks Hannah … but please don’t define being Australian by that behaviour!

      It’s an interesting movie and worth seeing.

      • May 11, 2012 9:44 pm

        I think we both know I don’t, really 😉

        It’s just such a shame I bought this DVD for you for Mother’s Day! Hahaha I’m so funny.

  5. May 12, 2012 2:07 pm

    Good to read a movie review on your blog! You know how much I love films and to be able to share with other bloggers who do both, ie, read books and watch movies. I’m afraid this one would likely not come to our city. From your review, it looks like one I shouldn’t miss. I did watch Animal Kingdom but only on DVD. Don’t think it was on the big screen here either. And, from your commenters, I must find Lantana … I’ve only recently come to know of this film from a screenwriting book. As for the novella comparison, that’s quite apt. But you know, movies are getting shorter and shorter nowadays. Many indie films are about 85 to 95 mins., much less than full length features which themselves have come down from the usual 120 mins. to 110 mins. now.

    • May 12, 2012 5:27 pm

      Thanks Arti … as you know I tend to mainly review Aussie films, though we do go to the cinema weekly when we can (with gaps with “life” gets in the way!

      Lantana is a great film … and I’ve seen quite a few reviewers liken these two films. I should see it again to refresh my memory but I do recollect that it sustained mood and tension well, and it stars the gorgeous Kerry Armstrong.

      Thanks re the novella point. Yonks ago it seemed to me that features tended to be around the 90 mins mark and that they gradually got longer over the last 2-3 decades, but perhaps I’m wrong. As with novels, I certainly can enjoy a long movie but I do like tautness. Over here we are still seeing a lot of movies over 110 mins and more around the 120 mins mark but I must say that I haven’t analysed to see if there’s a trend in terms of their source/type. I will try to do so in future.

  6. May 15, 2012 2:13 am

    This sounds good! and you made me laugh when you said the film was 89 minutes so was like a novella 🙂

    • May 15, 2012 7:55 am

      It’s always good to make people laugh … And it is a good film, probably resonating particularly with Australians because of our relationship with Asia.

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  1. Wish You Were Here (Movie Review) « Whispering Gums | Tour Cambodia

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