Beautiful Kate?

Flinders Ranges (Photo: Georgie Sharp @ flickr, used under Creative Commons licence CC-BY-2.0)

Flinders Ranges (Photo: Georgie Sharp @ flickr, used under Creative Commons licence CC-BY-2.0)

[WARNING: SPOILERS, PROBABLY]

Well, I haven’t read the 1982 book by American novelist Newton Thornburg – in fact I hadn’t heard of it – but Rachel Ward has managed to produce out of it a stylish and engrossing film, aided by an excellent cast and gorgeous, often eerie, cinematography. It helps too that the film was shot in the remote but stunning Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

In case you haven’t heard, I’ll get it out now. The film deals with one of those big taboos – sibling incest. It is not sensational, it is not really voyeuristic; in fact it handles the topic with a great deal of sensitivity.  This is achieved partly by telling the story through flashback which, somehow, reduces the shock value and enables us to focus on the circumstances rather than the act. Forty-year old Ned (played with brooding but intelligent restraint by Ben Mendelsohn) returns to the family farm, with much younger fiancée (Toni, played by Maeve Dermody), to see his dying father (Bryan Brown). Also at the farm, caring for their father, is Ned’s younger sister, Sally (Rachel Griffiths). Ned, a writer, is clearly conflicted and has a prickly (to say the least) relationship with his father and so, as we’d expect, returning to the farm releases the ghosts of his past. This past includes a mother who died when he was young, a father who was rather harsh and domineering, and a twin sister (the Kate of the title played by Sophie Lowe) and older brother (Cliff), both of whom had died tragically in their teens. Mostly through flashbacks, the film explores the last summer in Kate and Cliff’s lives, and the events which led to their deaths, events which have reverberated for Ned ever since.

It’s not a particularly innovative film. The transitions between present and past are handled pretty traditionally – mostly fades triggered by an action, object or sound – but they are nonetheless smooth and subtle. The landscape, which is beautiful but stark and somewhat desolate, provides a perfect backdrop for the characters’ emotional lives. And the music, particularly Tex Perkins’, to use a cliché, haunting rendition of “This little bird”, supports the film superbly. The end result is a sureness in the direction belying the fact that this is Ward’s first feature – it might be fairly traditional in style but it is definitely not boring.

I do though have a small quibble with the story. I saw the film with two other people and all three of us struggled a little to understand Kate and the motivation for her behaviour. (Of course we are seeing it all through Ned’s eyes, but it does appear from other clues in the film that his eyes are reliable). Was it being motherless? Was it their isolation (their father insisted they be home-schooled through School of the Air)? Was it indeed this harsh remote father? Or, was it jealousy? This is a bit murky and spoils a little our full understanding of the situation – and, rightly or wrongly, it seems to lay much of the blame for what happens at her feet. That said, Kate is not demonised. Rather, she is presented (and played beautifully by Lowe) as charismatic, lively and risk-taking, but as trapped on a stage that is too small for her energies.

The resolution is pretty traditional but is not mawkish – we can’t help feeling glad that Ned comes to some rapprochement with his father, that he has put his ghosts to rest and that he may now move onto a more settled future. This is a gutsy feature debut for Ward – I look forward to her next one.

Disgrace-ful

Well, I finally got to see the film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace today. Before seeing it, I was a little surprised that it only had an (Australian) M rating. From my memory of the book I was rather expecting an MA rating. I was slightly disappointed in the film: it’s not that I want to watch explicit “stuff” (in fact I often close – or half-close! – my eyes during realistic violent scenes on film) but I did feel that this adaptation somehow missed the full menace of the book. The book is hard to forget. The film, while engrossing, did not seem to have quite the same punch. I’m not quite sure why that is – it could simply be that having read the book, I was too prepared for what was to unfold for the shock value to work.

Interpretation of Disgrace, by Andre Pierre @ flickr.com, Creative Commons Licence 2.0

Interpretation of Disgrace, by Andre Pierre @ flickr.com, used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

That said, I’m glad I saw it. But first, a brief synopsis. David Lurie, an English professor at a university in Cape Town, is forced to resign after some rather “improper” behaviour with a female student. He goes to stay with his daughter on her remote farm and while he is there they are brutally attacked. What then unfolds is how this impacts each of them – and in particular how he gradually sees the consequences of some of his own previous behaviours. Despite, though, some growth within Lurie, it is not a cheery film.

JohnMalkovich did a good job of portraying the complexity of David Lurie. Lurie is not an easy character to understand – after all, it seems he barely understands himself – but Malkovich goes a long way towards “explaining” him. Lurie is a man who, in his time, has “preyed” upon women taking advantage of the gender (and other) power imbalances between him and them, but who is forced to face (horrific) reality when he and his daughter become victims themselves of power imbalances. Ironically, rape (the ultimate expression of gender power imbalance) is used to usurp the racial power imbalance that is entrenched in South Africa.  The personal is clearly the political in this story. Newcomer Jessica Haines beautifully plays his daughter, conveying well the fragility that lies just below the surface of her strength. Her reaction to what happens to her and her decision regarding her future are hard for us to comprehend but, like her father, we do come to some understanding even if we’re not sure we’d do the same!

The cinematography is spare mirroring the spareness of the book. The landscape is beautifully rendered, but only to convey its harshness. The pace is measured – shots are unhurried, allowing the ramifications of the events to sink in slowly with us as they do with the characters. The score has a gravitas that adds force to the drama being played out. And yet, and yet … perhaps all this gives it an elegaic tone rather than the menace and despair I found in the book. Coetzee’s post-Apartheid South Africa is not a pretty place.

Early in the book – and the film – David uses the word “usurp” by which he means to intrude or encroach upon. This is the subject of the book: the fact that nations and people (black-white, male-female, teacher-student, parent-child, person-animal) usurp upon others/each other. While the film does not quite explore all of these with the richness of the book, it conveys enough for us the get the gist! I would imagine that Coetzee is not dissatisfied with the outcome.

(If you haven’t seen the film, see the trailer here.)

State of the investigative journo film

I really want to see the new Australian film, Last Ride, and the film of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, but as State of Play is coming to the end of its run and we hadn’t yet seen it, that’s what we went to see today. Apparently, the film is an adaptation of a well-reviewed 6-hour British miniseries which aired in 2003. I didn’t see that and so don’t know what was cut out to create a 2-hour movie. We found it a perfectly entertaining political thriller but felt it really tells the same old story. Somewhat daggy newspaper journalist (played convincingly by Russell Crowe) investigates a story in which he has a relationship with a major subject. He has a young, ambitious rookie offsider. There are some love triangles (though admittedly our journalist does not bed the rookie). And, just when he and the rookie are resting on their laurels and you think the investigation is complete, he suddenly remembers something someone said that makes him rethink their resolution, resulting in, of course, a dramatic denouement (one that’s not necessarily expected but neither is it surprising).

I liked Crowe – I usually do like him in his films. The other members of the cast (Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, Robin Wright Penn) were good too. All in all it’s a well-made and entertaining film, with the usual thriller twists and turns, but there was nothing that lifted it out of the ordinary. Margaret and David, of At the Movies fame, rated it 4 and 4 1/2 (out of 5) respectively. There’s clearly something wrong with me. I’d give it 3 1/2!