South Solitary

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Review by Jane Freebury

Even at the best of times lighthouse keeping would have to be a tough call. The isolation on an inhospitable outcrop in the ocean, with only mutton birds for company. A life without creature comforts that would suit only the hardy few, like Barry Otto’s head keeper George Wadsworth in this new film from Shirley Barrett.

It’s great to see something from this writer/director again. She made the wonderful Love Serenade in 1996, best first feature prize winner at Cannes, but we haven’t seen nearly enough of her since.

It is the late 1920s. The new head keeper Wadsworth, imperious and haughty, arrives at South Solitary Island in the wake of the previous head keeper topping himself. There have been reports of the light going out, and he will put things right. His niece Meredith (Miranda Otto), 33 and unmarried, has come along with him to help with the paperwork.

As soon as she steps ashore she makes the acquaintance of Netty, a strange little girl who is the daughter of an assistant keeper. Keen to make a connection, Meredith asks her to look after the lamb she has brought with her. The child agrees, and names it Lucille after her other pet lamb that ended up on the dinner table.

Next time we see the poor animal, Netty (Annie Martin) has dressed it up in crochet baby’s bonnet and jacket. Like the people on the island, the birds and animals have developed their quirks too, like the horse that gallops away at any hint of work, and the carrier pigeons that just won’t fly. The humour is a bit hit and miss.

Quirkiness is offset by the magnificent old lighthouse and the romantic isolation of the location. There is a South Solitary Island off NSW, but the movie was filmed on Victoria’s awesome shipwreck coast overlooking the Southern Ocean.

Meredith is an unsinkable character, more schoolgirl than a woman who lost her man in the Great War and had affairs that cost her dearly since. She finds it really hard to fit in. Even the only other woman (Essie Davis) is a cold fish, but then she knows all too well what her husband (Rohan Nichol) intends to do with the pliant Meredith.

It’s best not to divulge too much when the plot is already stretched over the two hours of running time. Nothing much happens around isolated lighthouses, anyway. Instead, I can say that the romance between Meredith and the other assistant keeper, Fleet (Marton Csokas) who is severely traumatised by his war experiences, is a very slow burn indeed, but that the final scenes between them are truly inspired.

In a capsule: A young woman in the 1920s joins her uncle, a head lighthouse keeper, on an isolated island off Australia’s southern coast. The quirky humour, awesome location and slow burn romance are not compelling as they should be, but it’s a cheerful tale.

3 stars