What is it about lighthouses? They conjure up such a romantic notion of life in the wild, of communing with and/or battling the elements. They excite us with their extremes of remoteness and loneliness which can push people to their limits. And they paradoxically symbolise both life (light) and danger (warning). All of these are present to some degree in Shirley Barrett’s latest film, South Solitary, which is set on a remote lighthouse in the southern seas off Australia, in the late 1920s. Barrett says she chose this time period because it was before radio communications, and thus enabled her to explore how humans behave under extreme isolation.
The basic plot is that George Wadsworth (Barry Otto) and his niece, Meredith Appleton (Miranda Otto) arrive at an island lighthouse where George is to be head keeper. Already on the island are assistant lighthouse keeper Harry (Rohan Nichol) and his family, and the war damaged Mr. Fleet (Marton Csokas). These characters are all recognisable and the story is pretty predictable. Meredith is single, having lost her almost-fiancé in the first world war. Her uncle is the tough and somewhat unbending keeper of the old school. Harry is the “never-let-a-chance-go-by” womaniser, and Fleet the broody, awkward silent type. It’s generally realistic – Barrett doesn’t push the drama much beyond the limits of our belief (though there are a couple of debatable points) – but it is also rather archetypal, and so nothing in the story really surprises.
For these reasons, I found it to be an enjoyable – though not great – movie. The things I particularly enjoyed were:
- the cast, particularly Miranda Otto who perfectly juggles her fragile, rather too naive but also a little coquettish character; Rohan Nicol who plays the “cad” to perfection; Annie Martin who plays a knowing and unsentimental 10-year old; and Marton Csokas who, despite his almost clichéd stiff gruffness, has a voice to die for;
- the setting – the way the island and the sea are filmed to convey, at different times, beauty, freedom and terror;
- the social history of lighthouse living – such as the use of carrier pigeons and semaphore flags for “comms” (as we’d call it today).
Overall, this film is just a little too predictable to match the power of Beautiful Kate or Samson and Delilah or Animal Kingdom, but, it is an eminently watchable movie, primarily because of the cast and the setting. I’m not at all sorry I saw it – I could watch Miranda Otto, in particular, forever – but I’m not sure how long I’ll remember it.