Review by Jane Freebury
When the novel this film was adapted from was first published it sold like hot cakes. It was 1973, the year its author Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for literature. Now nearly 40 years on, director Fred Schepisi has turned it into a movie, but this is still only the second occasion that White’s writing has been brought to the big screen.
No doubt, this distinguished author isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His portraits of Australian society were often unflattering – is bitchy the word? – and this is no exception, but it’s still surprising his work has not been sourced for more films. Perhaps there has been a cultural shift since The Night The Prowler, written by White, was given a hard time in 1979, and perhaps this will do much better. It should, it is a fine film.
For a start the layering of events from a long and complex novel is deftly handled and the script, co-written by Schepisi and actor/writer Judy Morris, has brilliantly captured its essence. The central relationship between a dying matriarch and her two damaged children is presented without compromise. The repartee is witty and often withering, especially the poisoned darts that fly from mother Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling), as we come to understand why things are the way there are between her and the rest of the world.
Not that understanding leads to forgiveness. She’s a monster, and her shifty son Basil, Sir Basil (Geoffrey Rush), and her timid daughter la Princesse Dorothy, “poor, old Dottie” (Judy Davis) have learned to survive as best they can. Rampling just throws herself into the role of aging dominatrix, reminding me somewhat of good old Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. When she asks Basil where she is, he says “Your favourite place, mother, at the top of the stairs”.
As we discover much more than we want to know about mama, one can’t help wondering about the patriarch, long gone. How did he cope with his rampaging wife? Incidentally, the film does little to change my long-held view on misogyny in the work of Patrick White.
Sydney in the hedonistic 1970s gets a serve too, as do horny, ambitious politicians – a great little turn by Colin Friels. Indeed many of the characters are unpleasant people, which can get in the way of one’s engagement with the film. Even day nurse Flora (Alexandra Schepisi) flirts with the lucrative possibilities of single motherhood. It was, however, Judy Davis’ interpretation of her character Dorothy that helped me find my way through the domestic minefield. We see too little of her, and White, on screen.
Who knows, perhaps this classy adaptation will help revive his stocks, anyway.
In a capsule: A classy adaptation of the Patrick White novel with just about everything going for it. The writing is taut, the production is handsomely mounted, and Rush and Rampling are in very good form while Judy Davis is outstanding. Enormously satisfying all round.