Tag4 Stars

The Children Act

M, 105 mins

Palace Electric

Review by © Jane Freebury

4 stars

A good story about a moral dilemma is hard to beat. The English novelist Ian McEwan has a steady supply of them with characters caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with moral choices at once as intractable as they are desirable.

If humour is wanting – his novel Solar was perhaps an exception – you could not complain about McEwan’s lack of complexity as he challenges his characters with far more than they bargained for. Many literary awards testify to the compelling achievements of this Booker Prize winning author and influential thinker.

He’s a novelist but has on occasion also written just for the screen. The Ploughman’s Lunch in 1983 was based on his screenplay but now he tends to write screenplays based on his own books like Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

These recent films have taught us what we can expect of McEwan – a forensic dissection of human relationships. The film of his book The Children Act is no exception.

Directed with nuance and grace by Richard Eyre, The Children Act repays the viewer with its complexity and a stupendous performance by Emma Thompson, as high court justice Fiona Maye. And Stanley Tucci in excellent form too as her husband Jack, a classics professor.

 A case comes before her involving a young man not quite 18 whose Jehovah Witness family is refusing to allow him a blood transfusion because it’s contrary to their beliefs.The hospital where the boy is languishing with leukemia is suing the parents for the right to pursue treatment – transfusion followed by drug therapy – and an 11th hour decision is required.

Over and above his parents’ wishes, the boy’s life is already protected by the Children Act, but Maye makes an impromptu visit to the boy in hospital. What does he want?

It turns out Adam (Fionn Whitehead),  haggard and handsome, has the sensibilities of a romantic poet. He responds fulsomely to Fiona when she reveals her own interest in poetry and that she is a musician too. It seems as though he represents the passion that is missing from the well-ordered, work-oriented life that she leads as she shuttles between a Gray’s Inn apartment, her rooms and the court. Nor do she and Jack have children.

What’s more, Jack has just left, declaring he’s going to have an affair. It looks like Fiona has taken her demonstrative, sensitive husband for granted, but she changes the locks all the same.

As milady the judge becomes increasingly isolated, Adam becomes more and more obsessive, not entirely unlike the Rhys Ifans’ stalker in Enduring Love, also based on a McEwan book.

That’s one way of looking at it. I found myself wondering where social services were when we needed them. But that, of course, would have been prosaic and not have allowed the dramatic potential of this unusual situation to evolve.

Trust McEwan to throw this curved ball at us.

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)

Ladies in Black

Review © Jane Freebury

Rated PG, I hr 49 mins

All cinemas

 

Like many girls in generations past, Lisa takes a job in retail while she waits for her school leaving results. It opens her eyes to things that North Sydney Girls High and life at home in a red-brick suburban bungalow couldn’t begin to. Angourie Rice brings sweet authenticity to her role as a shy and serious teenager whose life changes big-time in the lead-up to Christmas in 1959.

How so? Magda, the formidable, charming woman running the haute couture at Goode’s department store knows a good employee when she sees one. As a Slovenian émigré who runs rings around everyone, British actress Julia Ormond has the wittiest lines in one of the best written Australian films in years.

The spirited screenplay is adapted from The Women in Black, the 1993 novel by the late Madeleine St John.

Magda worked in Paris pre-war but fled Europe a refugee. With devoted husband, Hungarian émigré, Stefan (Vincent Perez) in tow, she arrived in Sydney with fashion credentials and aplomb to die for. With a light and airy touch, she gives Lisa – who’s already shown signs of independent thought in changing her name from Lesley – the complete makeover.

Off with the reading spectacles, down with the hair, in with the belt and the girl is ready to introduce to Magda’s circle of immigrant friends at her lower North Shore parties.

Fay (Rachael Taylor), a colleague of Lisa’s, also gets an invite on New Year’s Eve, because Rudi (Ryan Corr), a lonely young Hungarian, would like to meet an Australian girl. Taylor is pitch perfect as the slightly sad 30-year-old who’s been around a while.

The film’s entire ensemble cast, including Noni Hazlehurst as the stern store supervisor, give nuanced performances, pitched just so. The only characters whose backstories don’t work so well are Patty (Alison McGirr), and her husband Frank (Luke Pegler) whose dysfunction could do with more explanation.

For Lisa’s mum (Susie Porter) and dad (Shane Jacobson) adapting to change is a learning process too – learning to enjoy salami, olives and foreign red wine, along with letting their daughter go as their world moves on.

Sydney is on the cusp of change as new immigrants from war-ravaged Europe flood to the sunny, harbourside city. Melburnian audiences may have to take some of the jokes about their city circa 1959 on the chin.

The filmography of director Bruce Beresford is about as long as the contemporary Australian film industry, and includes popular favourites like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Breaker Morant, Paradise Road and Mao’s Last Dancer.

There is something crazy brave in these fractious times about the basic decency and wit and wisdom born of experience in Ladies in Black. It also deserves to strike a chord with its accomplished and charming take on times past.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 Canberra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Insult

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Screening at Palace Electric

Rated M, subtitled

4.5 Stars

 

The Insult begins with a petty altercation over a drainpipe that escalates with punches thrown and insults traded. The issue goes to court, is picked up by the media and spills out into the street and across the country.

If it were a story from somewhere more peaceful, it might take the form of a farce or a satire, but this is from Lebanon, so often in the headlines with its bitter civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. Old enmities are still deeply and fiercely felt.

Tony (Adel Karam) gives evidence

It is the job of Yasser (Kamel el Basha), to fix faulty construction in the district, so he attaches a new piece of downpipe to a balcony outlet, but without permission. Apartment owner, Tony (Adel Karam), immediately leans over his balcony and smashes it to smithereens. Yasser swears at him, you ‘f—ing prick, not an unreasonable response in the circumstances.

The matter might have stopped there, at least with the big box of chocolates proffered in apology, but this exchange between these residents of Beirut won’t rest. Tony, a Lebanese Christian, recognises the foreman’s Palestinian accent, and takes things to court after an attempt at conciliation at his workshop ends in Tony saying something really wounding and Yasser punching him in the ribs.

Despite attempts by his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek) to make him see reason, Tony escalates the matter to a higher court, hires a counsel and has his mild-mannered assailant charged with assault and the potential charge of manslaughter because Shirine has suffered a miscarriage, and their baby daughter is being kept alive in a humidicrib.

It’s in the courtroom that things in The Insult get really interesting. A scintillating duel between Tony’s counsel (Camille Salameh), a seasoned barrister, and a glamorous young woman (Diamand Bou Abboud), who turns out to be his daughter. With Nadine, a Palestinian sympathiser acting pro bono, and her urbane father Wajdi sympathising with the Christians, it makes for thrilling exchanges between them. The performances here are a joy to watch.

The screenplay was written by the director Ziad Doueiri, of Palestinian background, and his wife, Joelle Touma, a Christian, while they were divorcing apparently. Surely the differences between these two, ethnic and personal, has something to do with the well-honed debate.

More is revealed about the dark intransigence that Tony harbours. So much so, that it mitigated my view that he was overplayed by Karam. The dignified Yasser, on the other hand, who says little but commands considerable attention, is played with great presence by El Basha. The optimism of the film’s resolution of a conflict that has endured for generations could be wishful thinking but if it really is possible, then bring it on.

This fine film, Lebanon’s entry in the foreign film awards at the Oscars, has much to say and put questions to us all. It is clever, passionate and entertaining and sometimes exhilarating, even for observers like me on the sidelines.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Summer 1993

Review © Jane Freebury

PG, Subtitled

Screening at Palace Electric

4 Stars

 

Without fanfare or introduction, a little girl wanders from room to room, looking dazed as she clutches her doll while adults pack up the contents of the flat that was her home. Snippets of conversation drift in, hinting at what has happened: her mother has died.

It’s a story from the heart by the writer and director Carla Simon. A study of loss and renewal that is loosely autobiographical and explores the journey she had to make to a new life.

Frida (Laia Artigas) is ferried off to the countryside to live with her aunt, uncle and little cousin who is close in age. Her mother’s brother Esteve (David Verdaguer) and wife Marga (Bruna Cusi) live an idyllic, uncomplicated existence outside Barcelona on a rural property where they grow their own.

With a couple of years of age on her country cousin, Frida commands a bit of authority over her, and the moppet, Anna (Paula Robles), dutifully follows her around. But it is the older child who is watchful and insecure under her halo of brown curls, unsure of her place in her new family and jealous of how her cousin can take a close and loving family for granted.

Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving

Inevitably, the little girls compete. When they both hurry off to collect the lettuce that Marga has asked for, Frida brings back a cabbage instead. Anna arrives a few moments later with the correct item. She, of course, knows the difference.

It is said that the two young actors were cast because a power struggle quickly developed between them during auditions. It that did indeed happen, it is sensitively captured here, allowing for the perspective of both girls to be expressed.

It can be painful to watch Frida’s mis-steps on her journey as she figures out where she sits in her new family. In one scene that prompts an uneasy sense of anticipation she attempts to act the coquette in lipstick, feather boa and long adult boots, while in another she tries to lose her trusting cousin in the woods. When Frida packs up one night to leave, Anna wants to know why. It’s because no one loves her. Anna responds without a moment’s hesitation ‘I love you’.

Marga and her new ‘daughter’ also need to bond, and here again the filmmaker shows her considerable skill. How difficult a new arrival must be for a young mother with her own child to raise. For Anna’s parents, it’s a question of having hope and confidence in including Frida in their little family unit, while protecting what they already cherish, and it is not inconsiderable. The images of family life here are some of the loveliest I’ve seen on screen.

The delicate process of establishing a blended family that takes place before us is largely told from the perspective of a damaged and uncertain little girl, the odd one out. Sentiment is minimal, naturalism is all, and it is very moving.

The title also reminds us how many young lives were lost from AIDS-related illness, before there were ways to manage the disease. The point is made lightly, in a little scene in which Frida finally asks why her mother died. Was the doctor ‘new’?

Summer 1993 is an exquisite study of a young orphan who moves from grief and confusion to hope and belonging. A special film that the director has dedicated to her young mother.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Back to Burgundy

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a familiar face in the background in Back to Burgundy (Ce Qui Nous Lie). An actor often seen in French films, but his name may not be front of mind. It will be from now on, because Jean-Marc Roulot is a winemaker and this delicious new film from Cedric Klapisch was filmed on his estate.

Roulot is cast here as the estate manager. He is not a central character but he has supplied the vineyard location and intimate, vigneron knowledge to help make this blend of family relationships and vigneron documentary such an organic and authentic pleasure.

The director and co-writer Klapisch has shown great flair for stories about young adults, characters trying to work out how to live their lives. Romain Duris has featured in his best-known films – The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle – as a young man with one too many options. It’s the youthful dilemma that Klapisch gives such a generous and empathetic treatment.

The gentle hills of Burgundy are a long way from Paris and all that the city offers, but peaceful rural settings can have problems of their own. Here it’s the transferral of vigneron tradition on a family estate to three adult siblings.

Their father has just passed away. On a practical level, when is it best to harvest, this Thursday or next week? Where is the best spot to start? Stems on or stems off in the vat? And, who is in charge here anyway?

The eldest sibling, Jean (Pio Marmai), has just turned up unannounced after a long absence. He has a small vineyard back in his new home in Australia and a partner there and young son, he but cannot adequately explain away his silence over the last ten years. His sister, Juliette (Ana Girardot) and his brother, Jeremie (Francois Civil), the youngest, aren’t ready to forgive him straightaway.

Now back in France, Jean has a new set of issues to resolve long-distance, but he wields his phone this time, in endless conversations with Alicia (Maria Valverde) in Australia. It’s an opportunity to have a bit of fun at Jean’s expense.

Some of the family tension is deeply felt but a far cry from a recent French film set in a family vineyard, You Will Be My Son, directed by Gilles Legrand. It is also driven by a father-son feud and events there unfold in very chilling circumstances indeed. Jeremie’s father-in-law, Anselme (Jean-Marie Winling), is another exacting, autocrat of the vineyard. What is it with the older generation of vignerons?

Flashbacks in Back to Burgundy unpack the issues, more or less, but scenes set in the past have been thrown into the mix, without being coded past tense and it doesn’t make for awkward transitions between timeframes. I was also left wondering why the hand of the dying father – all we see of him in palliative care – is not the hand of an obviously older man. These visual points are not critical, but the casual airiness of the piece and its spirited ensemble performances are, in my view, let down by some lack of attention to detail.

In other ways, the film’s aesthetic contributes a great deal with beautiful exterior scenes, high-angle and from unexpected perspectives. The way the end of harvest party is captured is a triumph. Klapisch knows how to party.

Alexis Kavyrchine’s camera captures the tangled web of familial relationships, from tightly experienced interiors to the panoramas of vineyards spilling over rolling hills. With her documentary eye, she also captures aspects of the winemaking process in such a way that it is easily integrated into the narrative.

As Jean stays on over the course of a year, the camera goes wide to reveal the four seasons. As everyone gets on with the things that need doing, the seasonal rhythms seem somehow to help the healing process.

It’s easy to miss, but there is a little jibe: wine isn’t given enough time in Australia, Jean should know. Something for vignerons to argue over after the closing credits.

4 Stars

Screening at Dendy, Canberra Centre, and Palace Electric, NewActon Nishi

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Gurrumul

Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

A few days before Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu passed away last year at the age of 46, he agreed to the release of this tribute to his life and work. It now arrives on screen just the way it was when last seen by the musician in July.

It is a beautiful documentary about a remarkable Indigenous man who sang, in his own language, songs that spoke to people the world over. Blind from birth, he had a gift for the universality of music, with a voice that seemed to touch people where they live.

His aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, who provides occasional insights over the course of the film, has observed that Gurrumul moved us deeply, often to tears, by simply showing us who he was.

Not long after Gurrumul’s death, his clan elders in East Arnhem Land also agreed to approve the film’s release. Yolngu lore forbids the name, image and voice of the deceased to remain in the public domain, so to be viewed it was an imperative to have the sign-off from the custodians of culture.

On this occasion, an important exception was made to Yolngu lore, and we are the lucky beneficiaries.

Sensitively paced and with an occasional fade out – a reminder of Gurrumul’s sightless world – this documentary is both subtle and intense.

Prior to taking on the project, director Paul Damien Williams had been working in remote Indigenous communities in the north of Australia for 30 years. It is impossible to imagine that such an organic and empathetic film could have been the result of any fly-in, fly-out arrangement.

There is priceless footage of the musician backstage while on tour overseas, either clowning around with people he felt close to, revealing his wit and mischievous sense of humour, or holding back during an interview that made him uncomfortable.

A trove of intimate moments from Gurrumul’s childhood and youth arrived one day during production, in a box of reels of Super 8 mm and Super 16 mm. The director was able to weave scenes from home movies into the tapestry of Gurrumul’s life as well.

And the filmmakers were permitted to shoot during the funerals of Gurrumul’s parents, who each died while production was underway.

Before his solo career, Gurrumul was a member of the exuberant Top End band Yothu Yindi, when a young double bassist out of Melbourne, Michael Hohnen, noticed the ‘quiet genius’ playing in the background. Hohnen would become Gurrumul’s musical collaborator. With Mark Grose, he subsequently formed the Skinnyfish Music record label in Darwin to work in partnership with Indigenous communities, help preserve their music and take it to the outside world.

Throughout the film there are many scenes of Hohnen and Gurrumul together and it is touching to see how close the bond had become between the two of them over the years. Hohnen and Gurrumul were considered wawa, the Gumatj word for brother.

Despite his beautiful, soaring voice, and mastery of keyboards, drums, didgeridoo and guitar, Gurrumul did not at first see the point in pursuing his own career. Family and community and maintaining culture at home among the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island were all that mattered, but eventually, he recognised the value of sharing his Yolngu culture and taking it to the world.

While Gurrumul’s voice was soaring, transcendent and unique, he was also his own man, someone who on occasion declined to meet celebrity expectations, the singing sensation who didn’t show up for his big American tour. He went home instead, to his island paradise home to attend his nephew’s initiation.

A left-hander who played a right-handed guitar upside down, a performer on the international stage who did a duet for French television but had little idea who his singing partner was. It was Sting.

It is difficult to imagine that a documentary like this could have been made about Gurrumul without deep understanding and mutual trust. It stands as a fine tribute to the man and his music, and is testament to the blackfella and balanda (whitefella) relationships that have made it happen.

Rated PG, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Square

Review by © Jane Freebury

As he is portrayed by the Danish actor, Claes Bang, Christian is assured, sensitive and genial. He is the head curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, with the jaunty name X-Royal Museum, and he is also a caring father to the two little daughters he sees on time-share and is an engaged global citizen who drives a Tesla.

Not the kind of man likely to land himself in deep trouble.

One day out and about in the city on foot, however, he is drawn into helping a young woman screaming for help. A cry for ‘help’ is one of the film’s central motifs. It is scattered throughout in different situations, some of which would work extremely well in a thriller by Hitchcock. The upshot is that he is pickpocketed during this incident and comes away from his charitable act minus mobile phone and wallet.

With location finder activated, he and his assistant at work, Michael (Christopher Laesso, another Danish actor in this European coproduction), hatch a devious plan to prompt the thief to return the stolen goods. The phone signal is blinking from an inner city high-rise that looks like social housing. The pair drive to the apartment block with leaflets to post in every letterbox, but it’s the kind of place Christian would never enter, and some very funny scenes ensue.

Miraculously, the plan works and the goods are returned, in a drop off at the local 7 Eleven. It puts Christian in even closer touch with one of numerous people begging on the street. But leafleting an entire apartment block of tenants with the threat of public exposure, draws ire from an unexpected quarter.

Work is giving him grief, too. The museum’s latest acquisition is ‘The Square’, an installation created from cobblestones dug up from the museum courtyard and self-consciously re-laid within a 4 x 4 metre LED square, a designated ‘sanctuary of trust and caring’. The millennial marketing team hired to help launch this bland artwork have an arsenal of shocking ideas that Christian has to keep pouring cold water on, until one of these concepts escapes unapproved while he is distracted, and it goes viral.

American actress du jour, Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale and more), has a small but pithy role in The Square as a journalist. The naïveté she suggests at the start in a sharp, amusing interview asking Christian to explain – better still, to decipher – the jargon in museum marketing material, quickly falls away to reveal an astute and practised player. Why she keeps a pet chimpanzee in her apartment is still a mystery to me, but I take it as a given.

Poor Christian. He has so much going for him it is quite impossible to feel sorry for him. What brings him a world of trouble has more to do with his gender, class and ethnicity than with faults of his own.

In this sharp and savvy social satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund, Christian’s peaceful, refined and ordered world descends into chaos, for minor errors of judgement, none of them hanging offences. The downwards spiral is replete with telling scenes of embarrassment but the tone is almost always light and the treatment kept brisk.

If anything, there are too many strands for drawing it all together and there is a bit of slump at the end.

It is a mark of Ostlund’s considerable skill, however, that the tense scenes in The Square would work equally well in a thriller, including a  quite terrifying scene of performance art that runs amok at a sedate dinner.

The Square has many attributes. Witty, smart, original, and delivered with airy panache – just for starters.

Rated MA15+, 2 hours 31 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Lady Bird

Review by © Jane Freebury

This lovely, low-key, authentic tale of coming-of-age from Greta Gerwig, one of the most talented actresses in US indie cinema, has its own particular shock value. Awful behavior and poor attitudes are par for the course when teens behave badly. Here the shocks arise from angry arguments that seem to ignite in a flash, out of nowhere. On a scale of zero to ten.

Take the first scene in Lady Bird. It unspools before the credits even begin, where a mother and daughter are in the car together on a trip looking at local colleges. As the teen finds the discussion heading in a direction she rejects—that is, not endorsing her fervent wish to go to university on the enlightened east coast—she dives out the door of the moving car. We catch our breath.

Lady Bird is a loosely autobiographical drama, with Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actress a thoughtful choice, in the lead role as the eponymous heroine.

Writer-director Gerwig has brought excellent actors together for her film, her second as director, and inspired them to give her their best. Ronan, who has already made quite a name for herself in a long list of films, including Atonement and Brooklyn, has perfectly captured the ‘rebel without much cause’ heroine.

Little is made of the act of self-harm but we know that it wasn’t a youthful revenge fantasy, because Lady Bird appears in subsequent scenes with a jaunty pink cast on her arm. A similar striking moment of incandescent anger takes place when mother and daughter go to thrift shops to find a prom dress, though on this occasion the conflagration is quickly extinguished as they make up over a luscious, pink lace number that they both adore.

Will Lady Bird’s beau for the evening find her irresistible in this gown? Her latest, Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet (who recently come to our attention in another coming-of-age, Call Me by Your Name), is gorgeous, but moody, self-absorbed and a bit of so-and-so. Lady Bird has only recently taken up with him since she found her former beau (Lucas Hedges, in another fine performance) on intimate terms with another boy.

If the boyfriends disappoint, the break-ups may have been lucky escapes, in fact, from the lie Lady Bird that she told each of them about herself, by not owning up to her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ background. It’s not only boyfriends she deceives, either. She has kept her struggling family a secret from the new best friend, also from a wealthy family.

If prom night doesn’t work out the way Lady Bird hoped and imagined, it becomes at least a watershed moment in which she realises which relationships really matter to her.

The problem for Lady Bird is that she would desperately rather be anywhere but Sacramento, in northern California, which is for her the ‘mid-west’ and all that implies. That’s too bad, when it seems her parents have her best interests at heart, supporting her in her senior year at a private Catholic school.

Unfortunately, the stakes have just risen because her programmer dad (Tracey Letts), has lost his job in IT and her mum (Laurie Metcalfe) has to double up on her shifts at the hospital, nursing in psych ward. Tracey Letts and Laurie Metcalfe are both convincing as the long-suffering parents, Larry and Marion, with Metcalfe outstanding.

Anywhere but here. It is the adolescent catch-cry, and it strikes a chord with everyone. Having discarded her given name Christine, she had insisted that everyone at home and at school address her as Lady Bird.

Gerwig has revealed that the name isn’t a reference to a former first lady, ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson, but drawn from a rather sinister little nursery rhyme ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’. Intriguing, but difficult to explain, as the ditty seems to speak to her mum Marion best of all.

Lady Bird is essentially about mothers and daughters. Even though they drive each other to distraction, the bond between them is rock solid.

Gerwig has received an Academy Award directing nomination for this film. It is also in the running for best film, though it seems unlikely to win a category that tends to go for the big vision rather than the small and intimate. Let’s however not Moonlight.

Were Gerwig to win best director it would be only the second time in the history of the Oscars that a woman has won the award. Indeed, it is only the fifth time a woman has even been nominated for an Oscar in 90 years.

Rated M, 94 minutes

4.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Happy End

Review by © Jane Freebury

There are probably plenty of exceptions to the adage that happy endings belong in fairy tales, so it may not be fair to pin it all on the stories we tell our young kids. Lots of characters do get their just desserts, or worse, in fairy tales. Just think of the work of the Brothers Grimm.

Fairly or unfairly, the movies have long worn a reputation for stories with a happily-ever-after ending long since the practice stopped being stock in trade, and filmmakers have left the last act of their stories fashionably open, or with the next sequel in mind. Reputations do, however, have a habit of sticking…

Since Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, we definitely have not expected a happy ending in anything directed by the filmmaker, Michael Haneke, the scion of misanthropic cinema. An Austrian with a reputation for bleak, uncompromising, brilliant films, he knows this, we get it, and he plays up to it. On this occasion his film is, however, also surprisingly wickedly funny.

For his latest film, the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar winner gives us the Laurent family, who live in Calais. They run a thriving business in construction that was established by the patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are wealthy and unremarkable.

On the face of it, Georges and his two adult children, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas, a doctor (Mathieu Kassovitz), are pillars of society in the city by the sea. Underneath the surfaces, however, there are murky, disturbing things going on. So it’s business as usual for Haneke.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has an inconvenient drinking problem and isn’t doing a competent job at work in the family business either. The ageing patriarch Georges is developing dementia and confides in his granddaughter that he wants to die. He had better watch out because Eve, the film’s main character, cheered on by elements she has found online, appears to be developing the characteristics of a psychopath.

On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet

A critique of social media from Haneke is timely, and consistent with the position he has taken in his films on recording devices, film and television, and mass media generally.

His view that audiences watch the screen uncritically, seems rather dated now that unpicking film texts for what they really say is common practice.

Eve has just entered the family home after her mother, Thomas’ first wife, suffered an overdose. On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet. She talks into her mobile about her mother in ways that give you the creeps, and then observes the effects of antidepressants on her pet hamster. It is a stunning, chilling performance from young Fantine Harduin.

The Laurent family drama plays out against real-life events in Calais, which is, of course, the last stop before the tunnel to England. There is a large encampment there known as ‘the jungle’, a way-station for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While not foregrounding this situation, writer-director Haneke has deftly inserted the plight of refugees into the narrative tapestry.

French cinema has a long and venerable tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie that Austrian writer-director has gleefully and energetically signed up to. The family event that concludes the film truly is a gem. It takes place at an elegant restaurant beside a sparkling sea, with a palette uniformly white, beige and pale blue—until unexpected guests arrive. This also provides cover for the elderly guest of honour to leave.

This is a clever, dark satire but what has endeared me to  Michael Haneke’s latest film most is the black humour.

If it is, as they say, that the only thing that improves with age is one’s sense of humour, then at 75 years Haneke must be at his peak.

Rated M, 1 hour 47 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

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Sweet Country

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a burning intensity to Sweet Country, a tale of revenge in the Australian outback where men turn against each other with guns and are violent with women and children. Although much of the violence is not shown in the frame, it is not this that gives the film its intensity as much as it is the passionate outrage that director Warwick Thornton brings to his work.

It was the same with Samson and Delilah, the breakthrough feature for the Indigenous writer-director, a film that took the breath away with its exquisite and forlorn beauty. It won Thornton the prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2009.

Although the focus in Samson and Delilah was on the impact of social dysfunction and neglect on two teenagers in Alice Springs, it spared its young people from despair. Sweet Country is a tougher film and the mood less compromising.

In the far reaches of the outback, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a veteran of the Great War, is struggling to get his cattle run established – and to pull himself together. A kindly neighbour, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), sends his Aboriginal farm hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to help him out with his cattle yard. If only the neighbourly act could have turned out as it was intended. Kelly’s wife is raped.

While Smith, a mild man of god, is away in town, March arrives at his neighbour’s house in search of an mischievous Aboriginal boy he chained up, suspecting him of theft. March fires into the house several times. The boy is hiding nearby, but Kelly is inside and he shoots back in defence of himself and his wife, killing March outright.

Kelly has shot a white man and knows he is doomed. It was the ultimate sin in the outback even late in the 1920s. Like the popular folk hero whose name he shares, he heads into the wilderness all the same, as he and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) make a run for it.

They remain on the run until they realise that Lizzie is pregnant with March’s child (the result of the rape) and they return to town to submit themselves to white justice. One of the film’s most powerful scenes captures this return, as they sit in the dust of the main street waiting in the early morning for the police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) to arrive at work.

The space between words was so powerful in Samson and Delilah too. Here again, the Aboriginal people have little to say in their own defence, the sad fact being that they expect to be ignored.

Working from a script by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, Thornton tells another 20th century story of the impact of white Australia on the Aboriginal people. It is drawn from fact and took place within the lifetime of people who are still with us.

Rolf de Heer’s brilliant film, The Tracker (2003), with David Gulpilil covered similar territory, also drawing attention to the hunting parties and retributive justice on the frontier early last century.

In the mythology of the American western, justice is won through the gunman, sheriff or outsider. Here we see it won through due process, only to be lost.

Although the red centre can be appreciated in all its glory through Thornton’s images – he is also cinematographer – ‘sweet country’ is not so much a place as a state of mind.

The title could mean several things. It is heavily laced with irony. As a place where one can find sanctuary or solace, it exists only in the imagination. As a place that could be great, maybe it ain’t just yet. Not until some things are fixed.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 50 mins

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

Other films to catch this week:

I, Tonya showcases an outstanding performance from Australian actress Margot Robbie. Made in faux documentary style it is loosely based on the story of an American Olympian figure skater who had all the moves, but never quite made it. The film shows why, taking us behind the scenes into the dysfunction and disadvantage of her family life and marriage, the circumstances that betrayed her shot at fame. 3.5 stars

All the Money in the World is among the best work ever by the veteran director Ridley Scott. Based on a vicious 1970s kidnapping and extortion, it is a great example of the kind of serious drama that Scott excelled in before he succumbed to the lure of digital possibilities and CGI armies, undermined by weak narrative and characters. No such problems here. 4 stars

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