Titane

Adele Guigue as young Alexia in Titane. Image courtesy Neon

R 18+, 108 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, the jury at Cannes has given the Palme d’Or to a film directed by a woman. It’s the second time this has happened and for the first time the prize is not shared by two films. The award for Titane is a great win, something to do cartwheels for, but will the work of its writer-director Julia Ducournau prove as stunning and as compelling as the work of Jane Campion?

I’m thinking a bet both ways on Ducournau at this point. Raw, her first film, was well received, and now that the young French filmmaker has smashed through at the world’s pre-eminent festival of cinema, perhaps still revealing enduring elements of ‘cinema de papa’, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Tough and unsentimental, it is steeped in some protracted violence before a reconciliation with a shared humanity

To make a fine point, however, Ducournau won for best film this year. The best director award went to Leos Carax for another risky piece, his crazy-beautiful gothic opera Annette.

Alexia at work at the motor show. Image courtesy Neon

Titane also looks good, you might even argue crazy-beautiful, lit in a garish, night-time neon by Belgian cinematographer, Ruben Impens. There are in the final scenes some soothingly tender touches, and there are astonishing performances throughout by newcomer Agathe Rouselle as the main character Alexia/Adrien, and by the likable and impressive Vincent Lindon as Vincent, who becomes her father figure. But the film is steeped in the protracted violence and the journey before some reconciliation with our humanity is often tough, unsentimental and harsh.

When we meet her, Alexia is already an established serial killer. Then we see her impale a would-be sexual partner with the knitting needle-sized hairpin she wears in her unruly locks. It’s no spoiler to say you can see this and much of the rest of the violence coming.

I’m not a particular fan of horror, but watching it from time to time comes with the territory. Besides there are some great horror movies in the archives like Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Halloween, Psycho, and recent additions like The Babadook, Suspiria, and A Quiet Place. And these days, it can be argued the genre is going mainstream.

Thirtysomething Alexia, a dancer, suffered terrible head injuries as a young girl in a vehicle that crashed with her hopeless father at the wheel. A titanium plate was inserted in her skull to save her life.

It may or may not be unsurprising that Alexia subsequently develops a thing for cars. We realise this quickly in an abrupt narrative leap forward when she is seen writhing on the bonnet of a car in a car sales showroom. When a forceful admirer chases her for an autograph afterwards, she just has to kill him. Then she is so wound up she needs to duck out to make love to a car, to consummate this passion.

An auspicious delicious humour at first, parodying the motor salesroom

Up to this point, there is an auspicious delicious humour parodying the way cars are sold, as though the delectable body draped across it comes with the purchase. But there is little of the kind of esprit you find in TV’s Killing Eve, another celebration of a female serial killer, or last year’s brilliant Promising Young Woman. All of these are riding a tide of female indignation in the current gender wars.

With posters of her likeness on the walls of subway systems, Alexia is on the run. She must change her already androgynous appearance to that of a glowering youth by shaving her eyebrows, taping her curves flat, and lopping off her wild blonde hair. The ruse works so well she is claimed by a father, Vincent (Lindon), also vulnerable and alone, who is desperate to reunite with a long-lost son who would be about the same age.

When, after body horror detailing multiple murders, self-administered abortion and catastrophic self-harm, the drama is resolved in scenes of compassion, it may disappoint some who want the horror experience consistent from go to whoa. Even horror fans who like to meet their fear head-on may find Titane, for all the flashes of brilliance, memorable but somewhat chaotic.

Like David Cronenberg’s weird and astonishing Crash, that brutal and provocative blast from the past, Titane is about sex and cars and perhaps car crashes. It’s a connection you just wouldn’t imagine, and it somehow works, but Titane is by comparison an uneven, and shocking rather than compelling journey.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 November 2021. Also published on Rotten Tomatoes

Stray

M, 71 minutes

4 Stars

 

Review by ©  Jane Freebury

It’s a doggie world in Stray. A singular doco about the dogs that live on the streets of the great city of Istanbul, where, far from being feared or avoided, they are patted, fed and even cared for.

It’s not every day that a film begins with a view from derriere. The camera so often takes this position while filming Zeytin, Nazir and Kartal, the three street hounds who are the focus of this animal-centred documentary, that we get used to it from the very start.

The dogs of Istanbul, and cats too, have free reign in the city. They have been roaming the city for a long time. A tragedy that struck the city was linked, superstitiously, to radical steps taken to clear animals from the streets, and strays have been free to roam ever since.

It’s remarkable to read that although authorities have been trying since the early 1900s to deal with this problem, it remains illegal to euthanise them or to hold them captive. Massive public resistance to measures to reduce the number of strays has resulted in the half a million or so stray dogs who live there now.

This documentary with its delightfully left-field subject and narration-free, observational feel, comes from Elizabeth Lo, a filmmaker born and raised in Hong Kong, who is now based in the US. She was writer, cinematographer and producer in this, her first feature. It took her two years to make.

It so happens that Stray has a companion piece, the documentary Kedi on the stray cats of Istanbul, that was directed by Ceyda Torun. Since its release 5 years ago it has won many international film awards and nomination. Awards and nominations are lining up for Stray, too.

A certain inherent dignity in natural behaviour that doesn’t call for subterfuge of any kind

The film opens with a quote by the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic who in 360 BC was saying that humans live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog. Stray may try a little too hard to achieve a level of seriousness with its intertitles, many are quotes from Diogenes, but it achieves a certain gravity anyway.

Some of the cast in Stray. Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures

While the controversial philosopher was deeply critical of Athenian society during his day, saying that a dog would recognise and bite a scoundrel, in other writing he appears to be less complimentary towards the animal. But the quotes in the intertitles help us reflect on the honesty of the dog, and a certain inherent dignity in natural behaviour that doesn’t call for subterfuge of any kind.

The life of a stray in the city of Istanbul doesn’t look half bad, and without any need to look out for the dog catcher van. There is even a healthy expectation that someone will actually feed you, even provide shelter. No, it looks like the dog’s life in Istanbul isn’t so bad at all.

What’s more, it is full of diversions. Chasing the occasional cat, wagging tails at new doggie acquaintances and making friends, getting a pat on the head from people passing. The overall impression of the footage that Lo presents to us is of a surprisingly harmonious society.

We trot with the dogs past the gossip in street cafés, past the street art and posters, past fishermen on the bridge, and along the waterfront and through condemned neighbourhoods awaiting knockdown, where the homeless hang out.

The dogs befriend young Syrian refugees who also live on the streets, but illegally

Following the dogs around makes for a fascinating perspective on the Turkish capital and a heady sense of place. You could almost smell the deep-fried pastries as they trundled past in street-sellers’ carts. Enhanced by the beautiful score by Austrian composer Ali Helnwein, Stray develops like a meditative experience.

Zeytin, Nazir and Kartal befriend a group of young Syrian refugees who also live on the streets, but illegally. Jamil, Halil and the two Alis, so young and vulnerable and living life day by day, gravitate poignantly towards the affectionate street dogs, whose body warmth gives them comfort at night.

The dome of Santa Sophia, glimpsed at top of frame from time to time, never seems far away, and is another reminder that Istanbul on the Bosphorus is where East meets West.

If you thought you were imagining the dogs pricking up their ears to the muezzin call to prayer early on, you would be right. Zeytin sings along to it as final credits roll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 27 November 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

 

R 18+, 106 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

After whips, masks and explicit sex open the show, this argumentative, chaotic film from Romania sets off in various more unexpected directions. It is actually a social protest film, and it won the prize for best film at the Berlin film festival this year.

A sightseeing trip through Bucharest is next up. Viewed in long shot, with slow pans up and down the streets, it’s a bit like a walking tour or a documentary. The grand old Romanian capital with its beautiful grand facades decayed and crumbling, is in desperate need of a facelift, and the infrastructure is crying out for attention, with damaged roads and cracked pavements a general feature of the streetscape.

Despite the issues of quality of life, writer-director Radu Jude focuses on the perversely funny side of things

The citizenry are understandably testy, getting into arguments at checkouts and on the street. As we overhear it out and about, nobody has quite enough to get by. Despite the issues of quality of life, this film by writer-director Radu Jude looks at the funny side of things.

When some of the same language used in intimacy is heard on the street in arguments over parking on footpaths and when supermarket customers get stuck into each other over nothing while queueing at the checkout, we begin to see the perversity of life from a Romanian point of view.

Divided into three chapters by shocking pink intertitles and a few bars of French song, BLB or LP works as social protest, bookmarked by the scandal of a teacher’s sex video going viral on the internet. Although reputedly published on a restricted adults-only hub, ‘Porn Teacher’ is particularly worrying for the headmistress and administration because students are watching it on their mobile phones. We understand that it wasn’t Emi (feisty Katia Pascariu), but her husband Eugen (Stefan Steele) who is responsible for uploading it.

Penises, dildoes and vulvas reappear briefly and unexpectedly like interjections throughout the rest of the film, but after the opening scene and an intriguing archival version of same, that’s about it. Depending on the slant of the viewer, the sex content here will be either an incentive or a disincentive.

After the first 3 minutes of porn, the film goes wide with a critique of Romanian society on many levels. BLB or LP is an omnibus of protest about the quality of political leaders, the intersection of private and professional life on the internet, the content of the school syllabus. In particular the teaching of history, something that other countries are wrestling with too.

Katia Pascariu as Emi in Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. Image courtesy Potential Films

There’s the country’s violent past, with the point about Ceausescu’s palace representing slavery in the modern era, the actions of the orthodox church refusing shelter during the 1989 revolution. And the community attitudes reflected in startling advice from a chief of police for wives being beaten by their husbands. Wait until morning to report it. By no means is everything confined to the Romanian perspective.

Chaotic, argumentative and overloaded with ideas in need of wrangling, a cryptic social protest movie with pornographic interjections

So much comes in for a serve, it’s a shame that the long montage in Chapter II hasn’t been better handled. A wealth of fascinating material, archival and contemporary, is juxtaposed then snatched from view before the significance can take hold. The old montage technique of colliding images has been brought into play in this, a treasure trove of apparently random juxtapositions, but the disparate yet fascinating content still needs wrangling.

Far from being repentant, Emi hits back at her accusers as she faces the parents who will decide whether she should be allowed to keep her job. The meeting takes place in the school garden, as participants, socially distanced and wearing various kinds of masks, launch into proceedings overseen by the headmistress. She is not unsupportive of the teacher who has done nothing to this point but bring credit to the prestigious school.

During this long sequence, Chapter III, director Jude once again achieves a jolly absurdist perspective on the inquisition, as Emi faces her supporters and accusers in the final round. It’s an interesting and relevant discussion, if only Emi weren’t quite so dogmatic about her point of view.

The signs of the Covid pandemic, the mask-wearing and the sanitizer stations, are another overlay of absurdity in this expansive, cryptic social satire. It will have something for everyone about what is wrong with contemporary life, so long as they don’t mind the occasional rude interjection.

First published in the Canberra Times on 21 November 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes

The Rescue

 

M, 107 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

When the junior soccer team and coach who went missing inside a vast underground cave system in Thailand in 2018 were discovered, it was said that finding them had been the easy part. Getting them back to the surface alive was so difficult that many thought saving them was improbable without loss of life.

The massive international rescue mission in Chiang Rai province that managed, against all the odds, to bring every single one of them back to safety after 18 days underground, is incredible, even now. The Tham Luang rescue is a spectacular achievement on many levels that deserves to be told and retold many times.

Perhaps it is also in part testament to the boys and coach themselves, to their sense of being a team, and to the meditation and calmness they practiced during the ordeal.

It was inevitable that Hollywood would obtain the rights to this story. Yes, a big budget feature is due out next year, but it is hard to imagine a more stunning version than this doco, The Rescue. It is directed by the American filmmaking couple, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who brought us Free Solo, which they shot as they made their way up El Capitan alongside the first man to climb the Yosemite monolith without ropes. It won them the Oscar and Bafta awards for best documentary.

Courtesy National Geographic

Watching that remarkable doco, we knew the free climber would make it, but it was still intensely compelling. Similarly, even though we know the broad outline of what happened during the Thai cave rescue, this is a thrilling and compelling dramatic experience. It is another National Geographic production.

Even the cavers could hardly dare hope, but what was the alternative?

The intensity of The Rescue lies in the first-person interviews and in the footage, some of it never-before-seen, of the rescue underway inside the caves. Even the cavers, on whose rarefied expertise the mission impossible depended, could hardly dare hope they would manage to bring all 13 people out alive. But what was the alternative?

Everything seemed pitted against success. Oxygen in the chamber where the boys were sheltering had dropped below life sustaining levels. Diving inside the cave system was like white water caving. The monsoon rains had arrived early that year. Some of the 11-16-year-olds couldn’t swim, and any one of them, in their unconscious, sedated state, could drown in their own saliva.

There was a natural, understandable hesitancy among officials about taking bold and dangerous steps, until they became the only option. Excerpts from the news channels about progress are sometimes painful to watch, revealing an expectation that all the effort could only end in failure.

The world’s top cavers, brought in from countries like Britain, China, the US and Australia, were ready, but they had never done anything like what they were being asked to do here. Some reacted to the desperate but ultimately successful plan to sedate the team and swim their inert bodies out one by one, with dismay. If it was a horrible idea, but then it was the only one going.

Rehearsal of the concept over several days helped convince Thai officials that there was method to the madness. The journey would involve a 1.8-kilometre swim over two hours, with each of the boys facing downwards, their hands tied behind their back, for their own safety. In the words of the Australian anaesthetist and caver, Dr Richard Harris, whose crucial contribution to the mission is well known, it felt like euthanasia.

It is hard to imagine a script any more scintillating than many of the real-life recollections here

Other divers recall their fear and acute anxiety of failure while having strong determination about getting their precious cargo out. It is hard to imagine a script any more scintillating than many of the real-life recollections here.

In-depth interviews with the two British cavers who first found the boys, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, reveal singular, private men who took to caving after they felt they hadn’t succeeded at regular sports. The stunning success of the cave rescue was, if you like, justification for their ridiculous minority sport, a weekend hobby. Self-deprecating to the end.

The miraculous Thai cave rescue of 2018 was a massive effort involving 10,000 people from different cultures, with different languages and different ways of life, all working to the same end. It is an amazing testament to many very courageous and determined people, and how good is that.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 November 2021. Also published on Rotten Tomatoes

The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. Image courtesy Netflix

 

M, 127 minutes

5 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Sensuality laced with violence often features in the films of writer-director Jane Campion whose remarkable career, with its surprisingly modest output, saw her the first female director to win a Palme d’Or at Cannes. There have been numerous awards and accolades but that particular win, among her first, had far-reaching resonance.

Her third feature, The Piano in 1993, was extraordinarily compelling, a different take on things that some would say reflects a female point of view, in an industry dominated by men. In her latest film, The Power of the Dog, which is either a western or a chamber piece, or both, there is a hulking man at the centre of the narrative. For the acclaimed filmmaker, this is something new.

Campion wrote her screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, published in 1967. The magnificent mountains that rear into the distance are not in Montana where the book is set but near Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Landscape sensuously integrated into the stories of the people who live within it, is another feature of Campion’s work.

Sensuality and violence are intertwined in this dark, twisty, compelling and very handsome alternative western by a master female filmmaker

The privilege of playing the lead male role has gone to Benedict Cumberbatch, who showed the world he was spectacularly unafraid to appear naked and vulnerable in Frankenstein for the London stage. In this modernist take on the cowboy western, Cumberbatch plays Montana rancher, Phil Burbank, without any hint of a soft underbelly. Not during the early chapters, anyway.

There are instead unsettling introductory scenes of pent-up violence, presided over by a glowering Phil, belittling all who would show any womanly weakness. With his lofty, threatening figure, backlit and in partial silhouette, it feels like the narrative could take off in a number of different directions.

Softness belongs to the brother he calls Fatso. George (Jesse Plemons) is a put-upon and pudgy brother, who we assume has been abused by Phil for his entire life.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog. Image courtesy Netflix

Dynamics in the ranch change radically, however, when George brings a new wife home, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow of means with a son, Peter (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee). One moment, George is assisting Rose in her catering work, the next he mentions to Phil that he expects their mother will welcome the new Mrs Burbank to the ranch.

When the elderly parents of the two men visit, it’s apparent that Phil’s bizarre behaviour is a concern for others, not just George’s gentle new wife. Moreover, she suddenly realises that there is far more to her husband’s rogue brother than she thought. Not only does Phil’s skill at the banjo mock her feeble attempts to practise piano, she finds out that he topped his class at Yale in classics. A very dark horse, indeed.

Poor Rose hits the bottle, secreting supplies of bourbon in amongst her clothing and in the bed she has trouble getting out of each day. George seems powerless to help. Then Peter returns on vacation from medical studies at university, and takes the narrative in a whole new direction, relegating the lovely Dunst, to a secondary role.

We have seen Smit-McPhee grow up on screen since he was the son in Romulus, My Father and The Road. He is impressive here as the young man forced to run the gauntlet of the masculinist ranching community, mocked for being different as an emerging gay man.

This is so different for Campion who has had a special talent for depicting the repression and flowering of female desire on screen. That has been a hallmark of much her best work, like The Piano, Sweetie, In the Cut, The Portrait of a Lady and An Angel at my Table, stories about women trying to find their voice and their own way in life.

Bright Star, her fine film on the last years of John Keats concerns an ailing man, but it is told from the perspective of his female paramour. Compared to the doomed Romantic poet, Cumberbatch is all id, a swaggering closet gay man who intimidates any who dare to express the feelings he is in denial of.

Here at the heart of The Power of the Dog is a man full of contradictions and compelling, dark energy, who is driving the narrative. It is compelling and Campion is back in top form.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 November 2021. Jane’s review are also published on Rotten Tomatoes

Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing. Image courtesy Netflix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars

 

Review by ©  Jane Freebury

Two women with completely different approaches to life, meet by chance one sweltering day in a leafy, airy, gracefully furnished hotel tearoom in Manhattan.  Once childhood friends, they have not seen each other for many years until one of them recognises the other and a faltering reunion takes place.

They exchange the usual. Both are married with children, both enjoy the comforts of middle-class life, both could pass for white, and for one of them her life depends on it. Things take off from there.

The rivetting fact is that Clare (Ruth Negga), has been living her life as though she were invisible or white, yet both she and Irene (Tessa Thompson) are Black American women. In an impossibly blonde bob with eyebrows bleached, Clare might actually barely pass as white, but perhaps the point is here that majority opinion in the north of the US during the 1920s could not imagine she would not attempt to do so, unless she were.

 Nuanced, expressive performances give voice to powerful personal emotions that underly the narrative

Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard), a wealthy man whose offensively racist views are soon aired, certainly doesn’t. When he meets his wife’s childhood friend, he appears to have no inkling of her race either.

At first glance, the flirty, vivacious, seriously compromised Clare appears the more diverting character who is attractive to one and all, even, as is suggested at various times, her old friend. She makes an imperious order for ‘a pitcher of iced tea in champagne flutes’, that the waiter duly brings. She’s a party girl who can get away with most anything during the fluid, dangerous days of the Jazz Age.

It is Irene who is, however, the much more complex, and possibly more conflicted. She shows little interest in building on the chance encounter, but Clare shows up one day on the doorstep of her house in Harlem, the home Irene shares with her Black American doctor husband, Brian (Andre Holland), and their two Black American sons, whom she tries to shield from news of hate crimes and racism.

Courtesy does not allow Irene to reject Clare’s visit, but the woman’s presence brings out a nervy, prickly side to her personality that seems to have been masked. Just what Clare represents for Irene, is one of the film’s conundrums.

The book of the same name by Nella Larsen that this film is based on, was published in 1929 and apparently received with interest, but not much beyond New York City. Now part of the African-American and feminist literary canons, it is apparently faithfully reproduced here by British actor Rebecca Hall in her first directorial role.

In fact, in the background of this film about ‘racial passing’ there are two more women of mixed-race. The writer-director Hall, daughter of theatre director Peter Hall and mixed-race opera singer Maria Ewing, is of mixed-race background, as was the novelist Larsen herself.

The film’s two lead actors, Thompson and Negga, deliver nuanced, expressive performances that give voice to the powerful personal emotions that underly the narrative.

From lustrous black and white cinematography, sometimes drifting dreamily in and out of focus and always intimately framed in 4 by 3 by Eduard Grau, the film’s approach to the novel is reverential. It is a joy to watch. Tinkling notes of jazz piano complete the atmosphere of a heaving city outside the door, buzzing with the Jazz Age.

‘Pass if you can. Why wouldn’t you?’

Travelling shots that recur along the street in Harlem where Irene lives are one of the film’s structuring motifs. Within the home where much of the action takes place, it is a women’s world of softly textured twenties’ fashions, traditional household interiors and the engine-room of Irene’s home, the kitchen where her Black American maid is hard at work.

Outside the home, Irene is involved in voluntary work for the Harlem community league, though little is heard about it. Glimpses of other sides of her personality are expressed in fascinating glimpses of her independence like the ability to drive and an occasional cigarette. Yet Irene’s character remains an enigma.

No doubt the metropolis allowed for ways in which to recreate oneself, just like Gatsby. ‘Pass if you can, why wouldn’t you?’ The views are so at odds with perspectives of today, but Passing is a fascinating, if frustrating, exploration of life in New York a century ago.

First published in the Canberra Times on 14 November 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes

The Last Duel

MA 15+, 153 minutes

4 Stars

 

Powerful and immersive, despite making a shift away from the usual driven narrative style and embarking into 14th century gender politics

Review by © Jane Freebury

Instead of a story arc that develops through the traditional three stages, The Last Duel is told from three different angles, leading up to a duel where a knight and squire fight to the death over a woman’s honour. A story structure advancing competing truths isn’t the kind of approach we’ve come to associate with Ridley Scott, although it suggests the veteran director doesn’t have a tin ear for changing tastes among moviegoers.

It is set long ago, in 14th century France, with a struggle at its core over truth and justice that will resonate today, and is loosely based on a trial by combat, the last officially sanctioned duel over contested evidence. It came about when a French noblewoman accused a man, the feted favourite of a relative of King Charles VI, of rape.

The charge was a long shot by the husband, the irascible Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) who already had form in litigation. He was away on business. Business in those days being fighting battles on behalf of the French king. His erstwhile good friend and neighbour, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), broke into his home and raped his wife.

Was it consensual? The assault was, as they say, a ‘he said, she said’ situation, but Sir Jean believed his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and laid their lives on the line to prove her innocent.

Fascinating to see Comer/Villanelle as a chattel, but it’s Affleck in spikey blond hair and goatee who is the revelation

Behind the facial fuzz and prosthetic scarring, Damon is not easily discernible but Driver might just have grown the hair slightly longer. It is fascinating to see the talented Comer as a chattel to her husband after her moves as a glamorous assassin in the TV serial Killing Eve, but it is Ben Affleck, sporting spikey blond hair and goatee, who is the revelation here. As the outrageous Count Pierre d’Alencon, he is assisted by some of the film’s best lines.

Matt Damon, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck in The Last Duel. Image courtesy Twentieth Century Studios

The marriage between Sir Jean and the beautiful Marguerite had been engineered to replenish the coffers and restore prestige, but the shifting sands of influence at the French court had seen de Carrouges on the outer. Le Gris was favoured by the district overlord, d’Alencon.

Was Marguerite of good character and repute? Did she lead Le Gris on, was it consensual or forced? Were her husband to lose the duel, Marguerite would be pronounced guilty and condemned to die by conflagration at the stake. A pretty compelling disincentive to speaking up.

Drawn from the book of the same name by Eric Jager in 2004, the screenplay represents a collaboration between Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, a respected filmmaker in her own right. Damon wrote the first chapter from his character’s perspective, Affleck the second championing Le Gris, and Holofcener the third, the woman’s point-of-view. The screenwriting credits for Damon and Affleck is a reminder that Good Will Hunting won them a best original screenplay Oscar early in their careers.

The Hundred Year War with England was grinding on unabated, and war was an everyday event in the backstory. The distinctive lines of the cathedral of Notre Dame were emerging on the Parisian skyline, and yet Enlightenment thinking was on its way. Not soon enough for women who remained the mere possessions of men, even the noblewomen. Justice issues were moving over to the courts, but it was still dispensed by the most powerful in the patriarchy, beginning with the king.

Flamboyant and powerfully immersive, though a shift away from the usual driven narrative

The beautifully made and flamboyant films by Ridley Scott that have become contemporary classics, like Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, are compelling to this day. His latest film is a shift away from his usual strenuous narrative style but is still inhabited with distinctly drawn and colourful characters, in a tussle over right and wrong.

And as always with this director, The Last Duel is a thoroughly immersive experience with powerful use of mise-en-scene and sound. The pounding of horses’ hooves and the clash of weapons in hand-to-hand combat don’t dissipate quickly after final credits roll.

Scott is a director, not a writer, having only five writing credits. It’s a reminder of how well he performs in the directorial role, pulling it all together. With fifty-six films to his name and counting, it will be interesting to see how Gladiator 2, now in the pipeline, shapes up for this century.

First published by the Canberra Times on 6 November 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

The Green Knight

Image courtesy A24 and Amazon Prime

 

MA 15+, 130 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

With or without a head on his shoulders, the Green Knight who disrupts a feast at King Arthur’s court is an enigmatic character of English myth and legend. What did he want? What did he mean in the great scheme of things? And what about the colour green?

This new film, a contemporary take on ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, a 14th century medieval fantasy poem of the oral English literary tradition, authored by ‘Anonymous’, has taken some key plot points out of the narrative but offers little in their place.

The sudden appearance at Christmas of a gnarly Green Knight at the court of King Arthur, kicks the film off to a promising start. Camelot was in a rollicking mood until a green giant, not in the least jolly, suddenly appeared in the doorway announcing he wanted to play a game. It went like this. The king or a knight of the roundtable could smite the giant knight anywhere on his body, as long as the favour could be returned within a year.

The point gets lost between the moors where scavengers roam and the castle where there is a trial by seduction

To rid the court of this pesky malevolence and spare his king, the best of Arthur’s knights, a young man of the highest calibre, steps forward and does the deed, cleaving the Green Knight’s head from his body. But the Knight (Ralph Ineson) picks up his head and leaves, reminding all that the most chivalrous and excellent young Gawain (the charming Dev Patel), must honour his word.

However, Gawain is not quite the upstanding character he is supposed to be. The gradual undoing of a man of impeccable morality was the point of the original poem and the version of Gawain we find here is one of many hints that the film is keen to show the downfall of the Camelot ideal, rather than examine the reasons for the decline.

Written, directed, edited and produced by David Lowery, The Green Knight has been fast and free with its source material, on this and other points. Few in the audience besides former students of English lit, like me, may care about the loss of key content, like fiddling with characters like Morgan Le Fay, but the point of the original has been lost somewhere between the moors where scavengers roam and the castle where Gawain undergoes a trial by seduction.

Lowery’s recent A Ghost Story, set in a haunted house with a ghost wandering around in a sheet, was an odd and dissatisfying experience. Here, however, the filmmaker, his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and costume and set design have certainly achieved a great look, using the Irish landscapes to wonderful effect, relying modestly on CGI.

Dramatic achievement is another story. During the film’s first half, The Green Knight is reasonably compelling, but the narrative threads get lost among the gorse on the moors, in the tenebrous forests and ruins dotting the landscape.

Perhaps the fox signifies Gawain’s growing wisdom. Who knows?

The Green Knight never delivers on its early promise by maintaining the level of tension we are set up for. As the solitary knight traverses the landscape, is robbed of an axe and girdle guaranteeing his safety, he takes up company for a while a solitary fox. Perhaps the creature signifies Gawain’s growing wisdom. Who knows? All the while, choral voices on the soundtrack become increasingly insistent.

The film’s weak script never fully allows for the subtlety of the trial that Gawain undergoes within the castle of the Lord, Joel Edgerton in a welcome appearance, and his Lady, Alicia Vikander, who was in early scenes as Gawain’s love interest in a bawdy house. While the poem is explicit about how his noble hosts test him on three separate occasions, in the film the tension of this long episode is cut short and the ending re-written so it loses the point entirely

I will always argue that the screen is a very different medium from the page, and that film should be judged as a different medium, but this film version fails to offer something new and meaningful in place of what has been excised. So, as King Arthur’s finest and most virtuous knight seeks his destiny across the land, how he learns of the importance of honour, truth, and wisdom, or of being a good and just man, gets the abridged treatment.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 November 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Mads Mikkelsen, he can play anything

 

Riders of Justice interview

Director, Anders Thomas Jensen and lead actor, Mads Mikkelsen

 

By © Jane Freebury

It’s quite the transformation. For his role in Riders of Justice as a flinty military officer returned from Afghanistan, Mads Mikkelsen had his head shaved and grew a bushman’s beard. With the floppy brown hair gone and the distinctive cheekbones disappeared from view, audiences will do a double take of the famous Danish actor, who certainly looks the seasoned soldier but nothing like his familiar self.

The beard was real because Mikkelsen hates fakes that get in the way and can come loose. “With that look it was easier to persuade a room that you might kill them if you look like that than if you look like a member of the Beatles, right?”

Like many films, Riders of Justice has been delayed many times. Just after a media roundtable that that I took part in early this year, interviewing Mikkelsen and the film’s director, Anders Thomas Jensen, the pandemic struck again.

On that discussion, Mikkelsen used audio only. The high cheekbones were hidden from view again, but the distinctive voice was there and the answers always considered and interesting.

Unfamiliar to his fans as the obsessive action guy who drives a Hollywood vigilante blockbuster

In Riders of Justice, Mikkelsen plays a character unfamiliar to his fans, a professional soldier Markus not entirely unlike the obsessive action guy who drives a Hollywood vigilante blockbuster. So, it was no surprise when one of the first questions from a panellist related to the film’s key theme. Why is the revenge movie such “a cinch”, such a lure for audiences? It was directed at the film’s director, Anders Thomas Jensen.

For Jensen the answer was easy. “It starts with a core feeling that everyone knows, an everyday feeling like the frustration of being held up for hours in heavy traffic that results in a feeling of grievance.” From little things, big things can grow. Getting stuck in traffic got things rolling for the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down.

Nicolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Lars Brygmann, and Mads Mikkelsen in Riders of Justice. Image courtesy Rialto

If Riders of Justice is a revenge movie it is also a madcap, dark comedy poking fun at the genre, offering some philosophy along the way on conspiracy theories that appear to underpin and seek to justify violent acts of revenge.

How did Jensen’s pitch work on Mikkelsen? “I just saw Markus as this macho man always knowing violence and just cracking on the inside,” the actor responds. “Like a man who tries to find logic in something in which there pretty much is none”.

Markus is in the field in Afghanistan when he hears that his wife has been killed in a train crash back home in Denmark, leaving his teenage daughter traumatised. It is a tragedy, inexplicable and senseless, for which it is impossible to find a perpetrator, but it causes Markus to martial his training and elevate his response to it to extreme levels. When a trio of hacker nerds approach him with their particular conspiracy theory accounting for the random, senseless accident, Markus leaps into action and the film leaps in turn into some hilarious comedy. Tinged with dark irony, of course.

Mad Mikkelsen and Anders Thomas Jensen first worked together on Jensen’s short film, Café Hector in the mid-1990s. Mikkelsen’s brother had a role but Mads crashed the set and got a part too. It was six years later that Mikkelsen appeared in front of international audiences in Open Hearts, the difficult story of what might seem like an inappropriate love affair. It was co-written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen.

Director Jensen, whose screen credits are mostly in screenwriting, has directed Mikkelsen five times. He is confident that his long-time friend and collaborator has nailed it with his portrait of a conflicted military commander suddenly confronted with the death of a loved one, to which he cannot respond in his usual way.

“He can play anything, Mads.”

Granted, the actor has seemed up for anything since he began combining work in the international screen industry with the Danish film industry where he started. The many genres of movie in which he has appeared include young adult fiction like the Fantastic Beasts films and Chaos Walking, big noisy Hollywood blockbusters and a turn in a James Bond. The riveting, agonizing, intimate Danish dramas like the recent Another Round, Michael Kohlhaas, The Hunt and A Royal Affair, have continued all along.

I ask if Mikkelsen has he been pushing himself to test his limits. “No, I respond to screenplays and characters that I believe in, with directors I believe in. Like most actors I try to make a scene intimate, a situation the audience can relate to, whatever the film, Fantastic Beasts or Another Round.”

He takes the discussion back to the Riders’ difficult themes of revenge and conspiracy, adding that “if there is no meaning, we will try to find it, to find something. The human race is always fascinated with where it cannot find meaning. Perhaps because if there’s no meaning, we don’t know why we’re here.”

It may not be possible for his character Markus, as a military commander, to resolve his deep hurt and anger. I say that he seems like a man with a very limited tool set for what he has just been served.

“Absolutely,” responds Mikkelsen. “He has learned from way back, from his father, definitely from the army, that he has to be the strongest man in the room. This is his biggest strength and his biggest weakness.”

Another journo asks whether Mikkelsen was interested in the study of a masculine character who found it easier to turn into an action hero than go into therapy. She mentioned that the actor has said he is resistant to the idea of therapy.

“I see a lot of him in me. …I’m not the kind of guy who needs to talk to people about what I’m thinking about.”

Uproarious, bleak humour, the hidden smile saying something that others are thinking

Some filmgoers may find the uproarious, bleak humour in Riders of Justice unsettling. So, what is it about the Danish sense of humour, that hidden smile about something taboo, the inappropriate jokes? Is it about saying what others are thinking, but too inhibited to express?

“I think that’s right. It’s a kind of humour you may also find in, say, Scotland and Australia.”

Jensen, the director, was impacted by a real-life tragedy himself, another event that made no sense. Early in the production of Riders of Justice, his teenage daughter died in a car accident, causing the filmmaker to fall into deep depression and suffer a nervous breakdown. It was, he says, the starting point for his movie.

“You can look to alcohol, to god, to pills… When you are angry and think that revenge is a meaningful way of regaining your life. That’s why I created this Markus character, facing PTSD, forced to face a life he’d been running away from.”

When asked what makes his lead actor so special, Jensen said he’s really good at picking up on other people’s psychology, at understanding why others behave the way they do. “Mads is good at so many things. Physically amazing, he can play comedy, and he’s a team player, the perfect actor.”

Then he pulled himself short with a light laugh, declaring he “wasn’t going to say any more nice things” about his friend and collaborator.  We all know he didn’t need to, and film audiences do too.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 October 2021. Jane’s film reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Nitram

MA 15+, 112 minutes 

Three stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Among the lists recommending the best of this or that out on the net, there are sites listing feature movies about mass murder. It comes as a bit of a shock to realise when researching Nitram, a film about Australia’s most notorious mass killer, that some folks organise their entertainment in this way.

And there’s no shortage of films on the subject. Films like Elephant by Gus Van Sant. It was based on the murders at Columbine, USA, in 1999, that were so horrific until Sandy Hook happened. It is very well made in observational style and it was brave of Van Sant to attempt it. Winning the Palme d’Or for best film that year might have seemed to secure its status, but it isn’t as simple as that.

This new Australian film is about the young man who in 1996 shot and killed 35 people and wounded 23 others one long weekend at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Nitram has also been lauded at Cannes, with a best actor award for American actor Caleb Landry Jones, compelling in the lead role.

It’s a new film from Justin Kurzel, controversial director of Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang, who has once again made something technically and aesthetically accomplished, that is also deeply disturbing.

The lead actors here, each inhabiting tricky roles, are excellent. Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis as Martin Bryant’s parents are wonderful. Based on intelligent writing by Shaun Grant and the cinematography by Germain McMicking, Nitram would be a powerful drama, even if we weren’t chasing the clues that mark his journey to notoriety, or waiting for the moment when he snaps.

Of course, there is heaps about Bryant online. That he was diagnosed at age 12 as a paranoid schizophrenic, had severe intellectual handicap and personality disorder. But the film Nitram could have been more explicit about these issues, probing Bryant’s mental illness. Early on, there’s an interesting extract of news footage of the real Martin Bryant as a young boy, when he was in hospital after having burnt his hands while letting off firecrackers. Would he stop now? Nope.

Image courtesy Madman Entertainment

As a young adult he was on a Centrelink disability pension and his issues being managed with medication. At home with the olds or abroad seeking friendship and attention, the eponymous Nitram was at a loose end and affectless. Mum and Dad were at cross-purposes over their son, but there was a sister who lived a reasonably normal life, and she is left out of frame.

Life is crushingly ordinary. Mum makes futile effort to chase away the wasps nesting under the roof, Dad spends too much time in front of telly watching Tatts Lotto. It seems like any other place in suburbia. Things at home could be worse, but the lad takes up the offer of a spare room in the rambling, unkempt mansion of a reclusive heiress in her 50s. A fan of light opera and owner of a multitude of pets, Helen is played by the remarkable Essie Davis.

Some important points about Bryant have been left out or elided. Nitram has his Mum over for dinner before the Port Arthur rampage, but there were girlfriends and one of them was in fact with him that night. Rather than the smiling, gloating loon in the video undergoing police questioning in 1996, the perpetrator presents here as remote, dreamy, misunderstood with a streak of menace.

The scenes in the gun shop where fistfuls of $50 notes are exchanged for semi-automatic weapons are a reminder of how easy it must have been. If the filmmakers had also asked why the various social security and medical systems failed to respond to clear warning signals, that would have been even more interesting. We knew so much of this, anyway, didn’t we?

Although there is a disturbing scene where Nitram roughs up his unresponsive father, there is no gun violence on screen, only gunshots heard in the distance or out of frame. The restraint is laudable, but a strong case is not made for the nature of the perpetrator’s mental illness, and it leaves a huge question mark over this strange, sad personal quest for notoriety.

What is wrong with you? asks Dad, in a rare moment of anger and frustration. It’s the question that the film never really answers.

First published in the Canberra Times on 30 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

A Fire Inside

Firies run towards it. Image courtesy Icon

M, 92 minutes

Four Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Volunteering in this country is strong. We saw how it boosted the Sydney Olympics. Then two decades later the Australian volunteering public was called on to do more, and then some, during the incredibly testing conditions of the Black Summer of 2019-2020. From south-east Queensland to the Southern Highlands and Far South Coast of NSW, to eastern Victoria, volunteering took on a whole new meaning.

This is a documentary about the men and women of the NSW Rural Fire Service and the communities they risked their lives for during the hellish nightmare that unfolded two years ago. NSW RFS is one of the largest volunteer fire-fighting organizations in the world and, as former Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons points out, 90 percent of the RFS are volunteers and most people have no idea that their work is unpaid.

A Fire Inside tells it how it was, and how it is now

It’s what these firies do. When they are needed, they down tools in jobs in the public service, or retail or design consultancy to don hi-vis gear, jump into emergency services vehicles and head towards the fire front. Most people run away from bushfire, observes Brendon O’Connor of Balmoral Village RFS in the Southern Highlands, while the RFS runs towards it.

O’Connor who was formerly in the military is one of two key witnesses whose story shapes this riveting documentary, a timely release coinciding with Glasgow COP26. Nathan Barnden of Jellat Jellat RFS is the other key witness. Both men were traumatized by their experiences, had near death experiences and are now transitioning to recovery. Many of us will not have realised that volunteering day after day in a constant state of high alert, where survival is touch-and-go, has an inevitable human cost.

On the night in the Southern Highlands when two young fire-fighters lost their lives, O’Connor, a captain in the RFS, refused to leave Balmoral Village unattended as instructed. Conditions were extremely volatile after three years of drought throughout Australia’s south-east, but he stayed on, as many did in fact, throughout the regions, taking enormous risks to save lives and property.

It’s Nathan Barnden’s remarkable, harrowing personal story that helps structure the narrative. It began when the Badja Forest fire burst out of the mountains and sprinted across the tinder-dry dairy country of the Bega Valley towards the coast.

Overwhelming to see  images of tiny figures in silhouette in the foreground of towering walls of flame

Barnden and a fellow fire-fighter, answering a call to 000 from Quaama, jumped into a 4WD without any fire-safe features, the only vehicle available, and drove through fireground to the house. A family of seven were huddled together inside under a blanket with three quarters of the building alight around them. After the men had managed to drive them out to safety, with minutes to spare, they risked their lives to save several more families within the hour. It was the night that Barnden’s uncle and cousin in nearby Wandella were killed by a fireball as they tried to defend their property.

Despite the family tragedy, he continued working for the RFS, non-stop without a moment to grieve, for the next two months. Unsurprisingly, he is still carrying a burden of guilt about not being there for his uncle and cousin on the day the fires began.

Image courtesy Icon

It is still overwhelming to see those images of tiny figures in silhouette in the foreground of towering walls of flame. When day turned to night on New Year 2020, I was with my family sheltering in Bermagui surf club, while fire tore through our block south of Cobargo.

The apocalyptic vision from eastern Australia that summer shocked the world and the smoke drifted across the globe. At the end of it all, when rain suddenly fell, there had been 200 consecutive days of emergencies and an area similar in size to the UK, or to the area in North America from Vancouver, Canada to Mexico, was burnt out.

Directed in workmanlike fashion by Justin Krook, with assistance from Luke Mazzaferro, A Fire Inside tells it how it was, and how it is now. The second half of the doco is devoted to mental health, food charities and to building community resilience, the area to which Shane Fitzsimmons has made a natural segue from his former role.

There is little need for embellishment with raw, unfiltered human content such as this, still so extraordinary and riveting for us all. Hopefully, it’s being screened at Capital Hill.

First published in the Canberra Times on 31 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Lamb

MA 15+, 106 minutes

4 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Without a lot to go on, little things loom large in this intriguing new feature from Iceland. The land of fire and ice is a powerful presence as both location and ultimately, a walk-on character.

It is set in a wide, treeless valley ringed by monumental mountains sweeping into the distance. An attractive, red-roofed sheep farm in the middle distance is run by a young couple who seem happy together but give little away. They have been dealt a blow of some sort. Initially, with little to go on from their simple existence, details like the name on a record sleeve and an indecipherable photograph on their fridge, assume telling significance, for little good reason.

We scratch our heads and meditate on the soundtrack, graced with horror notes. The style of cinematography from Eli Arenson is also replete with suggestion, in the white-out at the start in which a herd of horses are spooked, and other suggestive establishing shots. Around the farm, the watchful sheepdog looks cowed and wary, and the sheep in their stalls are not their dependably placid selves.

The tiny, isolated farm and its flock are alone, but not entirely. There is a distinct possibility that a malevolent presence is stalking, observing and even penetrating their lives. Only the establishment’s tabby cat seems to carry on regardless, unperturbed.

Few of the squeamish details are elided, then the cinematography suddenly gets coy and looks away

As Radio Reykjavik announces Christmas and the church bells peel frantically, the Christian spirit may be under threat from something dark and unfathomable that is out there, or is perhaps already in the inner sanctum.

Image courtesy Madman Entertainment

The taciturn young couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace, unforgettable in the original, Swedish-language Girl with a Dragon Tattoo films) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), have little to say beyond the practical though Maria is at least open to other ideas. Like the topic of time travel that she introduces one night over a basic meat and potatoes dinner. Travel into the future or back into the past might be possible, we may be free to choose where to go.

The audience isn’t spared some of the raw facts of rural life, like the earmarking of lambs. In the scenes in which we witness Maria helping ewes deliver, few squeamish details are elided as she pulls the quivering lambs from their mother’s bodies. After a few newborns are suckling and wobbling around happily, the cinematography suddenly gets coy and looks away.

It’s a strategy not a million miles away from Roman Polanski’s maddeningly brilliant non-disclosure in his horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, in which he didn’t divulge the riveting secret until the final frames around the bassinet.

In Lamb, after one of the ewes gives birth to a creature as the camera looks away, Maria swiftly swaddles it in a blanket and pops into an improvised cradle. A few muffled bleats give the game away, but only in part.

 The vision of Icelandic creatives often seems closely connected with the glaciated, sparsely populated island on which they live, so it is with this film too

Ingvar’s brother visits. The arrival of Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), a city type who is unceremoniously dumped in nearby countryside by a carload of friends or acquaintances, might herald an outsider perspective on these strange events. Once I’d reassured myself that Petur was in fact a separate character, and not Ingvar’s Haraldsson playing his twin, the revelations still didn’t flow. Then it is finally revealed that Maria and Ingvar’s adopted child is a hybrid. They name her Ada.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that both the adoption of the hybrid child and the violent act that was involved in achieving it are a flagrant riposte to natural laws, the sense of dread is heightened. However, the filmmakers do use restraint and resist the lure of horror tropes, with most of the action taking place in daylight. When it arrives, the personification of an avenging nature is powerful, more than enough to strike terror in the heart of miscreants who disrespect it.

Constructed like a fable in three chapters, Lamb is a first feature from Icelandic director Vladimar Johannsson, who collaborated on the screenplay with Sjon, novelist, lyricist, and frequent collaborator with the singer Bjork.

Although the filmmakers say they didn’t draw on Icelandic myths and legends, Lamb has the look and feel of folklore. It often seems that the vision of Icelandic creatives is closely connected with the glaciated, sparsely populated island on which they live and so it is with this film too.

First published in the Canberra Times 23 October.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Count Me In

M, 82 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

As a doco about the overlooked, drummers who were integral to the success of famous rock bands but weren’t celebrated, Count Me In has its work cut out. Not only is there a lot of territory to cover, there is no shortage of people who have focussed on frontmen and women without acknowledging the importance of the beat. The gags in some quarters of the music industry, about drummers being people who hang out with musicians, don’t help either.

Count Me In steps forward to contradict these negative views with a swathe of persuasive evidence to overturn the idea that drummers are interchangeable just so long as they can manage the kit.

Instinctively we know that drumming is important, because of the way it speaks to us. Although the percussive beat seems to be deeply significant in non-verbal human communication, our attention is often directed towards other forms of music, from string and wind instruments. Ancient flutes discovered in Europe are the oldest instruments found to date, but an object on which to tap a rhythm was surely music in its earliest form.

This documentary directed by Mark Lo is an eye-opener on drumming in popular culture, concentrating on rock, while referencing jazz and swing. It has arrived on screen shortly after Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones left the stage, and is ever so timely. If a rock band is only as good as its drummer, then Lo, who has a career specialising in music for the screen industries, has put together a package lending full support to this view.

Count Me In assembles clips from outstanding performances alongside interviews with some of the drumming greats who reminisce on their influences and share their views, often generous and appreciative, on their contemporaries. A number of the women drummers interviewed reflect on how they have been gradually accepted since the 1990s.

a touch ragged here and there, but tells a genuinely intriguing story about an underrated artform

A drumming circle performance within the sturdy walls of the Mt Wilson astronomical observatory in California bookmarks the narrative structure. It opens with a voiceover from Stephen Perkins, the drummer for Jane’s Addiction.

Too many music docos are undermined when musicians open their mouths to explain, but Perkins and others who contribute are articulate and insightful, throwing light on the particular contribution that drumming makes. Percussion can drive a song and simply turn people on, and it can even thrill audiences with unpredictable pyrotechnics. Brilliant exponents of the art like Keith Moon of the Who, and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin have left an enduring legacy.

We don’t often hear from drummers, and there are many here with plenty of interest to say. Like Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden, Roger Taylor of Queen, Abe Laboriel who has played with Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Cindy Blackman Santana who has played with Lenny Kravitz, and Chad Smith of Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It all gets a bit untidy but the content is consistently interesting.

These drummers’ influences were wide-ranging. They include jazz greats Buddy Rich and Max Roach, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Surfaris, and the Beatles and the astonishing spinning drum solo performed in the late 1980s by Tommy Lee of Motley Crue. Many started out in the kitchen, and can recall beating a rhythm on their mum’s pot and pans, before their parents gave in and bought them a kit. Some grabs of home video with kids receiving their first drum kits are interpellated to help make the point that drumming can manifest from early on as an overwhelming obsession.

How interesting it would have been to hear from the enigmatic Charlie Watts, the dapper figure behind the cavorting flamboyance onstage. It is said that the last time Jagger called for ‘his drummer’ the famous frontman earned a punch in the face from Watts himself, and he has never used the term since.

Watts had his moments when he was young but he evolved to be quite the opposite of the equally amazing but unrestrained Keith Moon and John Bonham. Both were of similar vintage to Watts, but they both left the stage at the youthful age of 32.

Count Me In is a touch ragged here and there, but it tells a genuinely intriguing story about an underrated artform.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 October 2021.   Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Diana the Musical

Jeanna de Waal in Diana the Musical. Courtesy Netflix

 

M, 118 minutes

1 Star

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s easy to imagine Diana Spencer would have loved the idea of her life turned into a musical, if she could have had a different leading man. She loved to dance, maybe not waltzing around the floor with Charles, but with professional dancers like John Travolta and Wayne Sleep. She liked kicking up her heels, and in time she learnt to let a bit of dust fly into the eyes of the royal family while she was at it.

You might think that a life set to music, pop music of course, would capture something about the late, errant Princess of Wales who was so famously trapped by the royals, while freed up while among the people. Diana the Musical has, however, not turned out to be a good idea, and Diana may have also thought that Camilla Parker Bowles didn’t get the shellacking she deserved.

Who knows how she would have felt about this new version of her life? She might have gone along with the treatment she’s had in The Crown, with Emma Corin plausible in the role. And it’s not hard to imagine that both Elizabeth Debicki and Kristen Stewart, both terrific screen actors, will capture something of the princess in their versions. A new season of The Crown with Debicki is out soon and the movie Spencer with Stewart has already opened in the UK.

For Diana the Musical, the hair and makeup department has done its best to simulate the hair, but getting that right is only a small part of it. Jeanna de Waal who plays Diana is lovely but nothing like the late princess, either in long-shot or in close-up.

Roe Hartrampf and Erin Davie deliver good performances as Charles and Camilla, plotting to carry on once Diana is ensconced, while Judy Kaye alternates as a sturdy Queen Elizabeth and a daffy Barbara Cartland. As Diana’s step grandmother, Cartland, she appears in a diaphanous pink outfit and almost steals the show. If only the same could be said of de Waal as Diana.

Diana the Musical was due to open in New York but this fell through because of the pandemic, so the stage production was filmed and put out there as though it is a movie. As pre-publicity before the delayed opening takes place this December?

The script written by Joe DiPietro, who is a Tony award winner, is also a significant part of the problem. Beware, there are toe-curling moments that see Charles compared with ‘a third-rate Henry VIII’ and have Diana crooning ‘my ginger-haired son/always second to none’ to baby Harry in his cot. Then there’s the scene where Diana decides on wearing a ‘f**k-you dress’ the evening Charles was set to give a public admission on TV about his affair. The many clangers stay with you, well beyond the final credits.

Based on DiPietro’s book, which is not easy to track down online, and with a score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, Diana the Musical doesn’t appear to shed new light or insight onto Diana’s story. The songs aren’t memorable, deadly for a musical and it’s like they have tried to make an American tale of it, trying to match US celebrity culture with a quintessentially English story. We’re all so over the Diana industry, anyway, aren’t we?

A filmed stage production masquerading as a movie, with a lead quite unlike the Princess, it is a travesty of what could have been

How did this travesty come about? It’s hard to imagine just what the producers thought they were doing here. Yet this musical has been produced by veterans of stage theatre, including director, Christopher Ashley who has also won a Tony, for the critically acclaimed and unusually staged 9/11 drama Come From Away. Of course, that was a stage play and not a film. The two mediums are so different.

The filmed stage production of the blockbuster musical Hamilton has also been streaming, and while it too lacks the fluidity of a real movie, it’s still a first-rate, exuberant entertainment compared to the cringe-worthy Diana musical.

Come to think of it, this isn’t a film review at all. It’s a review of a recorded theatre production that is yet to be staged in front of a live audience. It might be worth having a go at recording it again, when it goes live in front of an audience who have paid for their tickets, and comparing the results.

First published in the Canberra Times on 16 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

The Guilty

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty.  Courtesy Netflix

 

M, 90 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s always a bit of a jolt to be reminded how much drama a movie can coax from a few actors in a single location with a bunch of different camera positions and steady leavening of the emotional intensity. It takes skill to make so few tools work over the minimum 90 minutes required for a feature, and even more so with a tiny cast of characters.

Ignore the marketing that flags the name actors present here besides Jake Gyllenhaal. Yes, there’s Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard and Paula Dano, but they are only heard briefly as voices on the phone in this drama set in a police call centre. Riley Keogh certainly makes an impression, however, as a needy young woman with a breathless voice. She claims to have been abducted.

In The Guilty it is basically down to you and Gyllenhaal as Joe Baylor, a demoted police officer who is manning the phones during a hot Los Angeles night. The 911 centre, a barometer for the city’s mood, is lit low, with a bank of screens showing vision of various emergencies playing out across the precincts. There are the armed robberies and assaults, and, at the periphery, the towering fronts of the California wildfires.

It’s not just unrelieved intensity.  At least, Baylor can smile to himself about the addled voice of a guy trying to report that a tall, voluptuous hooker with pink hair and high heels has robbed him. Just as well, because, alternating between sympathy and patience with some callers and their predicaments and aggression towards others, the cop gives the impression of someone needing to decompress.

A minimalist chamber piece that depends almost entirely on Gyllenhaal’s fine performance as a policeman under pressure on several fronts

In addition to fielding calls to police emergency, this protagonist is wrestling with demons of his own. A journalist from the Los Angeles Times wants is chasing him for comment about his involvement in an incident with police that saw a young man killed eight months prior. And he is clearly feeling the strain of his divorce and the separation from his young daughter. Baylor is also an asthmatic.

For a man who usually works on the front line of policing, being put at one remove is frustrating, allowing him to do little but take calls from distressed people, identify their whereabouts and pass the details on to colleagues in the field. While he is on the eve of his appearance in court over his role in the death of the 19-year-old man, a call comes from a breathless female called Emily (Keogh) who is claiming that her estranged partner Henry (Sarsgaard) has abducted her.

On the face of it, a distraught young mother has been abducted by a man with a criminal record who is driving a white van, leaving the woman’s six-year-old daughter alone at home with her baby brother. Baylor instructs her to act like she’s comforting a child while talking to him, and only respond with ‘a yes or no’ to his questions. It is eventually clear that Emily’s misrepresentation have put a number of people in serious danger.

Movie remakes are risky territory but the dramatic tension is sustained until the final revelations

Gyllenhaal’s movie persona as a Hollywood leading man carries heft we don’t need in this pared back, minimalist chamber piece, but the actor is very good in the role. Gyllenhaal acquired the rights to the original Danish film in 2018, the year it was released, and became its producer and star.

Nic Pizzolatto, who created the TV crime drama True Detective, worked on the new screenplay for this remake of the highly-regarded thriller, Den Skyldige, that was originally written and directed by Gustav Moller. This year’s remake is directed by Antoine Fuqua who often helms big, manly action movies. However, this director also has some form with remakes, such as The Magnificent Seven, that was of course a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant, riotous Seven Samurai.

Remake are risky territory, especially when so closely modelled on the original. Does Gus Van Sant rue the day he decided to do a remake of Psycho, shot for shot? Bet he does, really.

Audiences can be unforgiving about straight copies, which this is, but Gyllenhaal gives a fine performance and tension is sustained until the final revelations. Another thing is timing. Since Gyllenhaal acquired the rights, the US has seen a policeman charged with murder in a very high-profile case. The Guilty makes for reflection.

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

The Donut King

M, 99 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Once during the spectacular rise of doughnut entrepreneur, Bun Tek Ngoy, his chain of fast-food outlets in West Coast USA was more than 75%-owned by Cambodian refugees, just like him. In fact, he had sponsored many of them to enter the business by getting their own franchise for selling two donuts and a cup of coffee to Californians to help kickstart their day.

It was remarkable. Once he was US-based, Ngoy helped transform the lives of Cambodian refugees by paving the way for them to set up their own doughnut shops and become a success just like him. During the late 1970s, tens of thousands of Cambodians in flight from the evil Khmer Rouge regime in their homeland, were desperate for a new life in a land of opportunity. How strange it must have been for many who Ngoy helped set up to realise that many of their customers actually had no idea where Cambodia was.

This documentary is directed by Alice Gu, originally a cinematographer, who co-wrote, produced and handled the camera here. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is well placed to tell the story of a Cambodian refugee of Chinese ethnicity who did great in his adopted home­ until his good fortune ended abruptly. In the mid-1980s Ngoy was a rags-to-riches story in the media, until a gambling obsession overtook him and the tagline reversed to ‘riches to rags’. The Donut King documents this rise and fall.

Welcomed by Republican President Gerald Ford, the Democrat Governor of California wasn’t quite so pleased

The backstory in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years, related in a substantial amount of archival footage, is a reminder of the tragic history that backgrounds this story of a multi-million-dollar empire built on American’s favourite pastry. The animated sequences by Andrew Hem that also progress these parts of the narrative do help deflect a sombre mood that is unavoidably engendered by recounting the Cambodian experience.

Ngoy managed to escape just as Phnom Penh was falling and brought his wife, Suganthini, and their three children to America in the mid-1970s. The family were among the many tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees flown to the US and welcomed by Republican President Gerald Ford. The Democrat Governor of California wasn’t quite so pleased.

Former army major Ngoy tried his hand at various jobs, including gas attendant, until he was drawn into a doughnut store by a delicious aroma. His favourite doughnut remains the glazed variety. He subsequently joined a three-month management training program at Winchell’s, which was the top Californian doughnut business at the time.

When the Ngoys acquired their own franchise, they funnelled all their energies, and that of their three children, into the business that offered doughtnuts 24/7. Interviews with the Ngoy’s grown-up children testify to the tough regime of 18-20 hour days, seven days a week. Dunkin Donuts, on the other side of the country, ‘gave up’ trying to enter the West Coast market, once Ngoy’s business was roaring along.

It wasn’t long after he had reached giddy heights, that he had begun to reverse his fortunes drastically

Ted Ngoy in The Donut King. Courtesy Greenwich Entertainment

I’ve never really got doughtnuts, myself. If you feel the same way, there is plenty of interview material that throws light on the doughnut craze, particularly the comments by food and culture commentator, Greg Nichols.

Bun Tek and Suganthini changed their names to Ted and Christy, then Ted received a reward that was presented by the President in person. Gerald Ford, seen affirming that America is built on the efforts of its immigrants, was a great advocate for America accepting refugees, not welcomed by all.

It is sad to see Ted Ngoy, now 77 years, has become a chastened man, reminiscing how he was drawn to doughnuts because they reminded him of Cambodian ‘nom kong’ all those years ago. It wasn’t long after he had reached giddy heights, that he had begun to reverse his fortunes drastically. Why?

At least he can relate with pride how he sponsored more than 100 Cambodian families to the US, and though there are some mixed feelings in his own community about him now, his story is a powerful example of how immigrants have helped shape the US. As they have Australia.

The Donut King is replete with lively, energetic characters and important social history, but I think the filmmaker could have drawn more insight from her material into the American Dream.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 October 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

The Voyeurs

R 18+, 116 minutes

2 Stars

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

 

The opening montage of this good-looking erotic thriller features the human eye in all its abstract beauty, sometimes fringed with lashes, sometimes bathed in coloured lights. From looking inside a lingerie shop to watching intimate couples through the window, there’s not much doubt about what we’re up to here.

What’s more, the main character, Pippa (Sydney Sweeney), is a trainee optometrist pushing the eye motif even further. One moment she is peering into a client’s dilated pupils, the next she is chopping a soft-boiled egg in half before adding it to her salad lunch.

Everyone familiar with the movie classics will immediately recognize the sliced eye and other homages to the greats. From the 1920s Bunuel-Dali avant-garde collaboration, to Powell’s Peeping Tom, to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, to Antonioni’s Blow Up, to Coppola’s The Conversation, and there are many more. The Voyeurs, written and directed by Michael Mohan, makes many cinema references, and it wants us in on the joke.

A half-hearted attempt to ignore the free porn show on offer, but they then buy a pair of binoculars, and set up a laser pointer to record sound

That’s okay, it’s just so laboured. A lighter touch with a witty script would have done wonders for this glamorous style vehicle.

The Voyeurs is set in Montreal. The filmmakers were considering New York, but a city in Francophone Canada with photogenic architecture and streetscapes is a good choice. Besides, Fatal Attraction, the erotic thriller that made such an indelible impression in the 1980s, was set in NYC and made much of its locations.

Pippa and her partner, Thomas (Justice Smith), are signing a lease for their new loft apartment. The moment they’ve settled in, a couple in the apartment opposite start making out on the kitchen counter, in full view of their sweet new neighbours, who we imagine are too well-mannered – inhibited? – to dream of doing such a thing themselves, even though their living room is just as open to the world. Pippa and Thomas make a half-hearted attempt to ignore the free porn show on offer, but by the time they’ve bought a pair of binoculars and by surreptitious means set up a laser pointer to record sound too, it has come to dominate their lives.

Sydney Sweeney in The Voyeurs. Courtesy Amazon Prime

If the film is trying to make the point that we have all become participant-observers, then that’s nothing new. Anyone who watches film/TV/vision online is in some sense a voyeur and we agreed this was the case long ago. The argument that The Voyeurs proposes, or rather the posture that it adopts, is about pornography, which is potentially a more interesting and contentious point now we hear that the porn industry has apparently overtaken the mainstream screen industry itself.

So laboured, when a light touch and witty script would have done wonders for this handsome style vehicle

The argument for porn is spelt out by Seb (Ben Hardy), defending how he conducts the studio photography business that brings a stream of beautiful women into his home. From the moment Pippa saw the firm abs and cute features of her hunky neighbour over-the-way, Seb, she was clearly hooked too.  Though when Seb contends that watching pornography is mainstream, Pippa begs to differ. Of course she can’t, because she does too.

Thomas falls by the wayside at some point, probably when he goes to sleep before Pippa comes to bed in her sexy new lingerie. Perhaps he forgot to drink his eau-de-vie during the evening. There are a number of broad hints, that Pippa and Thomas are not quite sexually compatible, and she emerges as the main character.

Pippa is a bit shy but she is curious, like all the female protagonists in this kind of movie and Sweeney is very good in the role.

The level of effort that went into making The Voyeurs look good also seems to have gone into the script, but as the narrative develops the plot twists become silly with the film losing cred at every new turn.

Erotic thrillers have a bit of latitude for going over the top. It seems to go with the territory and can include a rabbit stew (Fatal Attraction) and an ice pick parked under the bed (Basic Instinct), but for thrillers to get you really hooked, a heady dose of psychological contradiction seems to be necessary. The Voyeurs gestures in that direction but goes for a ludicrous, labyrinthine plot instead.

Light on the psychological and heavy on the erotic, The Voyeurs is just a shallow exercise in that grey space between mainstream movies and the porn industry that competes with it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 October 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes

The Stronghold

Francois Civil and Karim Leklou in The Stronghold.           Courtesy the Cannes Film Festival

MA 15+, 105 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Hollywood buddy movie as we know it comes in various generic guises and is often framed as comedy with two male leads. In buddy movies it usually takes two, but on this occasion, it has taken three.

This French cop action film with its three male leads is a kind of policier. Yet it has much in common with the knockabout buddy movie in which mismatched partners lean on each other to get things done, and have a good time while they’re at it.

It’s about a trio of plainclothes policemen who work together in an anti-crime unit, known in France as the BAC. The film’s alternative title is BAC Nord, the name of the anti-crime squad that covers the north of Marseille, the great port city in southern France where many different immigrant communities live side by side, and worlds apart.

Director Cedric Jiminez who grew up in Marseille wrote the screenplay with Audrey Diwan. It is loosely based on true life events.

The buddies comprise three distinct types. The team leader, Greg Cerva (Gilles Lellouche) who is older, self-contained and has no family. He has been a ‘popo’ or cop for 20 years. His two sidekicks are Antoine (Francois Civil), who is athletic, bronzed and wears his hair in a ‘man bun’, and baby-faced Yass (Karim Leklou), who looks gentle but has a nasty habit of slapping people around to get compliance.

Getting to know them reveals they are not so very different from the communities they police

Each has a different style to their partners on the beat. Just like some of the original buddies, the Danny Glover and Mel Gibson characters in the Lethal Weapon films, and the Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson characters in television’s Starsky & Hutch.

The flics in Stronghold riff off each other too. Whether they’re grooving to rap music turned up loud as they weave through the traffic, or sharing cartons of contraband cigarettes, or tucking into merguez sausages and tabbouleh at a barbecue. Getting to know them reveals they are not so very different from the communities they police.

Over lunch at Yass’s place, when there is a bit of banter around the table, Nora speaks her mind. Yass is a hard man on the job but he is sweetly in love with his gorgeous, pregnant wife (Adele Exarchopoulos), who works as a police despatcher. When Nora’s waters break, the siren is plonked on the roof and the boys take her to hospital emergency, but not before she has delivered some very good lines.

Greg, Antoine and Yass have each other’s back. When things don’t go to plan, like losing a suspect they were chasing on a clapped-out motorbike, they look for alternatives. To make up their quota, they make a sortie into the high-rise ghetto to arrest a small-time dealer instead, and at the markets stop a hapless pair doing an illegal trade in baby turtles.

Chasing suspects that get away, or being barred from the ghetto by its self-styled security, makes the flics feel pretty ineffective, until the day the boss gives the signal to take down the entire narcotics network operating in the ghetto area. Antoine works on his pretty informant Amel (Kenza Fortas) and acquires the intelligence the BAC Nord need. A large shipment of drugs is arriving and a police raid will catch the vast dealer network red-handed.

An entertaining but uneven mix of knockabout buddy fun and seriously compromised policing

A major corruption scandal in Marseille in 2012 saw a gang of policemen arrested for organized drug theft and extortion. The filmmakers based their screenplay loosely on the stories of several of the officers who were unwittingly caught up in the criminal activities, or unable to operate outside them.

As the performances here aren’t that persuasive, the policing is most convincing in the chase scenes, so long as the music track that has landed abruptly doesn’t distract from the action too much. Many of the extended chase sequences captured with a hand-held camera are immediate and exciting, while the climactic scenes when the flics are on foot in the ghetto have a convincing urgency.

The Stronghold is an entertaining but uneven mix of knockabout fun and seriously compromised policing. Gilles Lellouche is in character and Adele Exarchopoulos makes a big impression in her small part, but overall it just doesn’t all hold together well. Not as well as those Marseillais tower blocks, anyway.

First published in the Canberra Times on 25 September 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes

Hating Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell in Hating Peter Tatchell. Courtesy Netflix

MA 15+, 91 minutes

4 Stars

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Peter who? Just in case you aren’t sure you have the right person in mind, the lively montage that opens this documentary is a powerful reminder of the lifetime of protest that Peter Tatchell represents. Storming pulpits, attempting citizen arrests of dubious foreign leaders visiting London, travelling alone to former Communist countries to protest the persecution of gays.

The list of LGBTQ campaigns that he has been supporting during 53 years of activism is astounding, and as a result this doco is bursting at the seams. Even so, it doesn’t seem possible that all the protests this famous Australian expat, human rights activist is known for, and loathed for by some, could possibly be included.

After setting the scene, the filmmaker, Australian/British writer-director, Christopher Amos, starts the narrative in Melbourne where Tatchell was born and raised in a strictly observant Pentecostal Christian household. Life at home was difficult for him but he was flourishing at school.

It was the sixties and he was already politicised. He became head prefect, despite or because of his left-wing radical views, elected by the school’s grassroots democratic system.

He felt strongly about the need to be proud as a gay man and was an organiser of the first Gay Pride march

By paying close attention to the reports of the Black civil rights protest movement in the US, he began adapting their methods to his own purposes. Naturally, he was active in the Vietnam anti-war movement of the time and to avoid conscription he left Australia in 1971, arriving in London at the age of 19, just as the Gay Liberation movement was taking off.

Tatchell felt strongly about the need to be proud as a gay man and was one of the organisers of the first Gay Pride march in Britain in 1972. He was wasting no time in his adopted home.

From one stepping stone to the next, Tatchell demonstrated by himself or with supporters, in England and abroad over the following decades, acquiring a name for himself as a deeply committed and courageous gay activist and human rights campaigner.

To review and discuss this remarkable journey with Tatchell, now 69, the filmmakers have mustered broadcaster Stephen Fry and veteran actor Ian McKellen. They are of course notable gay celebrities in their own right.

Peter Tatchell in Hating Peter Tatchell. Courtesy Netflix

Excerpts from the interview between McKellen and Tatchell are scattered throughout. From time to time the camera rests on McKellen, wise and benevolent like his alter-ego Gandalf, as he studies this uniquely energetic and brave campaigner who has dedicated his life to worthy causes. There is no shortage there. There’s plenty that needs to be set right in the world.

Fry describes him as a performance artist, McKellen wonders if Tatchell has been foolhardy or brave, or perhaps both. In a brief snippet from Elton John, an executive producer, he says the entire gay community is indebted to Tatchell.

Opinion is not all positive. Some very testy views are expressed, mainly archival, from when Tatchell was a thorn in the side of many. A fellow activist gently observes that his confrontational tactics did ‘not always’ help.

He has quite a record in civil disobedience, and there can be no doubting his courage

George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, makes a surprising appearance. It’s all the more astonishing for the fact that Tatchell once claimed to have publicly outed a group of Anglican bishops whose views on homosexuality were hypocritical.

Even fellow activists weren’t happy with this, questioning his confrontational stance and his preparedness to do anything ‘to create a headline’. As McKellen observed quietly, he wasn’t popular with everyone, but as Tatchell countered, none of the bishops said anything against gays afterwards.

Another episode that made Tatchell enemies was his stand as a British Labour Party candidate for the seat of Bermondsey during the 1980s. The level of homophobia it elicited is now incredible.

Some touching footage records a reunion with Tatchell’s elderly mother, Mardi, on a visit to Australia. Although her Christian views cannot be reconciled with her son’s life choices, the two appear close and affectionate.

Director Amos has deftly included many aspects of Tatchell’s life while managing to retain a coherent narrative, but I still wonder where the fierce drive comes from. The picture would have been more complete with more probing in this area.

Peter Tatchell has quite a record in civil disobedience, and there can be no doubting his courage. John Pilger, Julian Assange, Geoffrey Robertson, Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell… There must be something in the water.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 September 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes

Disclosure

MA 15+, 85 minutes

4 stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This new Australian indie has its reasons for opening with a vigorous sex scene. The sex life of two of its main characters, while nobody else’s business, is one of the reasons why the couple fall out with their good friends, also married with children.

Things fall apart over the course of a sunny summer afternoon, mostly spent around a kidney-shaped swimming pool screened by lush greenery. It’s all very middle class but the issues that are raised in this terrific drama written and directed by Michael Bentham are not confined to the comfortably well-off.

Differences over how to raise your kids and how to live your lives have ruptured many a friendship between parents, particularly when the going gets complicated. Think The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas’ book and the excellent series made for TV, condensed here to around an hour and a half.

As with The Slap, the question is how would you, as parent or carer, respond to such a situation.

The couple having sex, Emily and Danny Bowman (Matilda Ridgway and Mark Leonard Winter), were alone at home before enjoying a nude swim afterwards. Their 4-year-old daughter is elsewhere, probably with grandma.

Some visitors drop by. Bek and Joel Chalmers (Geraldine Hakewill and Tom Wren) catch them unawares though we sense the visitors have seen it all before. It certainly won’t be anything their security man, vaguely sinister in his wraparound sunglasses, hasn’t witnessed before.

Despite the setting, the issues raised around parenting are not confined to the comfortably well-off

The couples are established friends. Danny is a journalist and Joel a local politician so there are additional dimensions to the relationship between them. Their friendship appears to have stronger foundations than the relationship between Emily and Bek that rather quickly descends into a cat fight.

The exchanges and arguments between all of them have a riveting authenticity.

After the scene with Emily and Danny, intimate encounters that they are in a habit of filming, the cool, uncluttered order at Bek’s place stands in strong contrast. But what is going on in one of the rooms just out-of-frame? It sounds like a child crying out.

Bek is in long shot down the hall, fielding a phone call while doing something in the kitchen. When she comes over to find out, she tells the kids to go outside and play. This crucial sequence is shot with an entirely stationary camera sitting in the hallway.

The children’s voices, heard fleetingly in those few seconds, are possibly a clue to what took place. Natasha has told her parents that she was penetrated by Ethan, the nine-year-old.

A locked camera is frequently used in Disclosure, sitting in on the verbal brawling while the actors provide all the movement in-frame. The cinematographer Mark Carey makes a strong contribution to this excellent drama.

What actually took place between the children when we heard the little girl call out remains a mystery, even harder to guess while the children are kept out-of-frame for most of the time.

Perhaps Bek and Joel’s boys, Ethan and Ben, are mostly unseen so as to discourage us from making any judgements about them. Only four-year-old Natasha makes a brief appearance in final moments before she is shepherded away by her grandma.

Exchanges between the couples are compelling, underpinned by a thoughtful, nuanced script

Emily is insistent that Bek acknowledges what has happened, that Ethan assaulted Natasha. Bek, an abuse survivor, is just as adamant that he didn’t, couldn’t have. Her elder son is a typical boy who just loves playing Minecraft and blowing things up.

Emily and Danny suggest the children see a therapist, but Bek is opposed to this, since what Natasha has told her mother could never have happened. Joel might agree to it on condition it is done anonymously so that any disclosure does not jeopardise his political career.

The furious ongoing interchanges between Emily and Bek, between Joel and Danny and then between all four of them are compelling. It was interesting to read that the four actors are in fact friends.

This is a terrific ensemble piece, underpinned by a thoughtful nuanced script that examines the issues even-handedly. The script has often been a weak spot in Australian cinema but this is strong on every level.

If Disclosure wasn’t quite sure about how to finish, the last scene in the pool makes for a striking promotional poster.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 September 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes