Ali’s Wedding

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Smitten by a lovely girl at the local mosque and eager to make his father and family proud, a young man tells a lie. It’s such a colossal deception that he couldn’t possibly get away with it, but he’s such a guileless, pure-hearted dreamer that the few people who want to exact shame and punishment for it end up looking like the bad guys.

Ali (Osamah Sami) reaps his just desserts anyway.

Romantic love and filial duty are rather old-fashioned virtues for propping up 21st century romantic comedy, yet the conflict between them may be back with boy meets girl from a different cultural background. Like the popular American rom-com The Big Sick, this terrific film co-written by actor and stand-up comic Sami and award-winning screenwriter Andrew Knight, and directed by Jeffrey Walker, makes them front and centre here.

Set in the Muslim community of north Melbourne, Ali’s Wedding is based on Sami’s own life, ‘unfortunately’.

Humour from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself

What a story it is. To begin with, Ali is born the son of a Muslim cleric, an Iraqi, in the Iranian holy city of Qom where he spends his early life. When he is 12, the family emigrates to Australia.

The humour of Ali’s subsequent life adventures derives less from the fish-out-of-water possibilities of living in a different culture than from anomalies within the expat Muslim community itself.

For the amusement and instruction of his congregation, Ali’s father (played by Don Hany), wrote a musical comedy called Saddam: the Musical, with him in the title role. Really. It went down well and the production travelled to the United States. Well almost. Ali’s encounter with Homeland Security makes for some classic humour of miscommunication. Proving the adage that there are times when you gotta laugh, or you cry.

Bolstered by impulse rather than design, Ali gets into a pickle when he lies about his score at the university entrance exam for medicine. With the crowd assembled for prayers at the mosque, women to one side and men to another, Ali steps up to the challenge to his family honour thrown down by the rival cleric and his high-achieving son, declaring he achieved the highest score.

What’s touching is it seems what he really wants is for everyone to acknowledge that the stunning score Dianne (Helana Sawires) achieved in the same exam has actually tops them all.

It’s Dianne who Ali really fancies, even though the girl his family intends him to marry is really sweet. Dianne is Australian-born, and you know what that means, even if Ali’s younger sister is too! Life for Ali has become beyond complicated.

It’s not another predictable, dull exercise pushing the right buttons, it makes you laugh

Yet neither Ali nor his cheerfully Aussie mechanic brother Mohsen (Robert Rabiah)—one of many delightfully overdrawn characters—look like they would sink into deep depression if they fell short of family expectation. Laid back, you would say. Their baby sister looks all set to make up for any family shortfalls anyway.

Ali’s Wedding caught me unawares. Expecting another dull exercise pushing the right buttons rather than making me laugh, I found instead a genuinely engaging heart-felt comedy showing how people and families can be just the same everywhere.

The characters live, the feeling is generous and humanistic, and I’m glad to say that unlike some of the movies that pass for comedy these days—Girl’s Trip anyone?—it’s funny.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The King’s Choice

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Not too many monarchs appear on screen in foetal pose, the way the King of Norway does in early scenes in this wartime drama. Another oddball monarch with issues, looking for escape from the world? It is a bit disconcerting until you hear mention of his back problems.

He has trudged through the snow playing hide and seek with his grandchildren, and now lies on his side on the floor in his study, clutching his shins. Behold, an ordinary man!

Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), was Norway’s king during World War II and for most of the first half of last century. It’s intriguing to read that when Norway dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905 and opted to become a constitutional monarchy, the crown went to a prince of Denmark who became the country’s first king.

Another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks

Long before April 1940 when the German war machine rolled, sailed and flew in demanding he and his government collaborate or be swept aside, Haakon VII was firmly established in the affections his people.

This intimate and engaging film directed by Erik Poppe is eager to affirm Haakon’s reputation as a man of the people. And to show how little say he had in negotiating with the invading German forces or in maintaining the neutrality Norway wished to preserve. It certainly succeeds.

Joining a sudden plethora of World War II films opening this year—Churchill, Dunkirk and the soon-to-be-seen Darkest Hour—it is another war film, yes, and another take on menacing, fast-moving, and dislocating events during the early weeks of hostilities. The narrative covers just three days.

From the start, the drama that engulfs Haakon and his family, including Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), his government and the people, is about how to respond to the German forces that enter Norway demanding collaboration.

Should he agree to the urgings of the German ambassador Bauer (Karl Markovics) and cooperate? Or stand his ground and refuse to surrender sovereignty? To complicate things, a Norwegian politician by the name of Quisling has stepped into the breach of indecision and is offering to collaborate.

Weaving handheld camera is neither superfluous nor exaggerated, but integral to the drama

During these events, the handheld camera closely shadows Haakon and key personalities like Olav, in disagreement with his father, and Bauer, odious yet oddly pathetic. Close ups and a weaving handheld camera are neither superfluous nor exaggerated but integral to the drama, enhancing its impact to great effect.

A couple of military encounters, both of which heighten tensions significantly, are telling. When the Norwegians, scarcely prepared for war, take aim at the invaders entering Oslofjord, and when the Norwegian resistance assembles hastily at a crossroads.

As Haakon drives through the checkpoint, trying to keep himself ahead of the invading forces until he has decided what to do, the camera focuses on one of the men assembled. Young Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), is overwhelmed to find himself face-to-face with the king. It seems to speak for the nation.

Seeberg is then seriously wounded in the ensuing skirmish, his fate dangling in the balance until final moments. In its subtle and engrossing way, this film has us on tenterhooks till the end.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Una

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Review © Jane Freebury

It is a committed, adventurous actor who takes on the role of a pedophile, even apparently reformed. They couldn’t have been exactly lining up to play the role when Ben Mendelsohn was cast as a pleasant middle manager who has turned his life around after serving four years in prison for his crime.

Even for such a talented actor, it could not have been easy to nail the layered, complex and elusive character of Ray, who, after changing his identity has re-instated himself in normal life and goes by the name of Peter. He has in the process acquired higher status, with a new home and a new wife, hosting elegant parties that he just calls drinks with a few friends. It gives him even more to lose.

A pedophile who seems inherently decent is a tricky one. Another actor, say someone like Ray Winstone, can play the domestic monster convincingly in The War Zone, but he couldn’t do a trusted 40-something next door neighbour who seduces a 13-year-old. There’s a difference. Few actors could achieve what Mendelsohn has, without overplaying their hand.

In a troubling film that makes for difficult viewing, Una’s young teenage self, played so well by Ruby Stokes, is a pliant but not unwilling party to her seduction and abduction.

Fifteen years later, Una (Rooney Mara) still lives at home with her mother, and there are plenty of tell-tale signs that she has not moved on. Mara has branched out since she wore that dragon tattoo, but the intensity is still there and she is a force to be reckoned with.

For Una now, it is unfinished business when she tracks her seducer down. The puzzle is understanding what she wants to achieve by confronting him. To find out, as she says, why he abandoned her after they had run off together? To express her rage and pain, or prove she still has a power over him, or to even ruin him? Or is there someone else she has in mind who she needs to protect?

There’s ambiguity at every turn. Ray/Peter, insists he is not one of them, a serial pedophile, and even though we may sympathise with his predicament when Una re-enters his life, we just cannot be sure. It makes the unfurling tragedy of two damaged people unable to escape their past all the more compelling.

Una was directed by Benedict Andrews, an Australian based in Europe who has a long list of opera and theatre credits to his name, including direction of the original play, Blackbird. The screenplay is by David Harrower, the original playwright, who has opened it out from two-hander for the stage to the screen.

The home counties setting where Pete lives is something of a cliché these days, and it seems a little far-fetched, but it pays homage to the established idea that dark and slimy secrets hide in neat affluent suburbs and small towns. Thank you, David Lynch.

Although there is occasional staginess in the dialogue, Una is a strong, fine drama, that hits the right note as powerful contemporary tragedy about high-order transgression.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

Frantz

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Review © Jane Freebury

Is peace between former enemies possible while the horror of war still haunts them? The process certainly gets complicated in the latest film from the urbane director, Francois Ozon.

Frantz is a loose adaptation of Broken Lullaby, an Ernst Lubitsch film of 1932 that was itself based on a play written in the 1920s, soon after the Great War. It is not the kind of film usually made by for Ozon, who is more inclined to the intimate, sexy, sometimes over the top, contemporary drama like (Under the Sand, Young and Beautiful) or the not so subtle comedy (Potiche). What is he up to here?

Lubitsch, one of the great directors of cinema’s golden age, had quit Germany after WWI and joined the coterie of the expatriate European creatives who flourished in Hollywood. He made his name with sophisticated, witty comedy. Broken Lullaby was atypical for him too, but more easily explained by his background.

Most of the action in Frantz takes place in Germany, embittered and defeated in 1919. A young Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney) has made a pilgrimage to the grave of a young German he once knew, a casualty of the Great War that had engulfed Europe. At Frantz’s graveside, Adrien encounters his former fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), and against all the odds, he begins to make a connection with her and the dead man’s grieving parents with whom she lives.

The relationship that develops between Adrien and Frantz’s relatives is at once intimate and impossible, not unlike the complicated personal bondings that characterise other films by Ozon, like the excellent Swimming Pool and In the House. Adrien is not what he seems. He is compromised and even if motivated by the highest of intentions, his actions imperil a fragile stability because of the terrible secret that he harbours.

There is a lot at stake for all in what seems like an impulsive intrusion, and the two young actors, Niney and Beer, convey the vulnerability of youth, especially after the trauma of war. Niney doesn’t quite convince this viewer in his role, but Beer is especially effective, her naturalistic performance offering what contemporary audiences are most comfortable with.

And Anna is bold. She follows Adrien when he returns to Paris and eventually tracks him down at his family home, with more surprises to follow. Adrien is never quite what he seems. Anyone familiar with Ozon’s body of work might be looking for a homoerotic sub-text there too. Could be, but it never seems explicitly articulated.

The film is lovely to look at. A few flashbacks in colour signal the exuberance of pre-war Europe and the promise of new hope in the present, otherwise the aesthetic is monochrome.  Perhaps with black-and-white Ozon wanted to honour the great age of silent cinema when expressionism was in its prime in Germany.

Whatever he intended here, his historical drama in classic early 20th century studio style, is thoughtful, subtle and rather exquisite. It could seem dated with its precise plot twists and turns and self-conscious resolution, but the traditional narrative suits Ozon surprisingly well, and it is endowed with a wonderful central performance from newcomer Beer. Her character gives it heart and soul.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Land of Mine

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A rag-tag bunch of German soldiers, some barely men. A beautiful beach on the Danish coast, and it’s spring. Now that the war is over, is it time for them to head home to their families, and live the dreams that kept them going? Not quite yet. First, they have to clean up the mess their army left behind. Underneath the pure white sands, the beach is riddled with land mines.

During World War II, the German army planted mines all along the European coastline and with landfall in Denmark so close to Berlin, it anticipated the Allies would land there. In the end, of course, the Allies opted for a landing in France, leaving the evil ordnance under Danish beaches undisturbed for the time being.

Up to 2,000 German soldiers were conscripted to do the clean up. It is not entirely clear how old they were, what kind of action they had seen beforehand, or whether they were in any sense ‘volunteers’ for this fearful work. It is hard to imagine any were, though who knows what sleight-of-hand was involved.

The writer-director of this powerful drama, Martin Zandvliet, has chosen to focus on the resolution of this dreadful situation, an evil dilemma, in very human terms rather than investigate it forensically. With his young, innocent looking actors, Zandvliet proposes that the mine clearers were too young to be guilty of Nazi atrocities, and were conscripted into the task of mine clearance illegally. Their youth and vulnerability make watching the scenes of them prone on the sand detecting and defusing the mines gingerly, one-by-one, often excruciatingly difficult, even in the safety and comfort of a darkened cinema. Who will the grim reaper select as his next victim in this dreadful game of chance?

Against a setting of stark natural beauty, Zandvliet has created a drama from bare essentials, so the performances really count. The actors are often shot in close up and are very convincing, including Roland Moller as the Danish sergeant in charge of the young men, the most difficult role. I did, however, wonder if the characters did full justice to the complex and conflicting emotions that must swamp former combatants at the end of hostilities.

In 1945, it was against the Geneva Convention to expose prisoners of war to dangerous or unhealthy work. It may be that Denmark contravened this, along with the British command, despite a record of heroic resistance to Nazi activities in relation to its Jewish people. Perhaps we can never know the full story now.

Light on facts, it is nonetheless a powerful drama of rapprochement, opting for empathy rather than analysis in a familiar terrain of having to carry out orders that contravene humanity. In some ways, it seems like a cop out. In others, it seems like the only way forward.

Land of Mine – what a good title – joins impressive drama we’ve seen from Denmark in recent years. Films like The Hunt and Brothers and television like The Bridge that have the courage to get themselves involved in daunting moral complexity. Denmark has some form in this space.

Where does responsibility lie? It’s a fair question. What would an EU have done about the problem in 1945?

A Danish-German production from 2015, Land of Mine has finally reached Australia.

4 Stars

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Salesman

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Review by © Jane Freebury

 

The films of writer-director Asghar Farhadi are taut, tense, obliquely scripted and immaculately performed. His latest film in similar vein won best foreign film Oscar this year, just five years since the director won the same award for A Separation.

I wouldn’t say that his meticulous work is the most cinematic. There is sparing though powerful use of all the expressive elements of his chosen medium, yet he is still one of the best around. Social constraint and strict censorship in Iran have served him well, too.

The Salesman was screening in Tehran when I was a tourist there last year. Our guide said it was doing well, though she seemed a little puzzled by its success. It may not be the sort of entertainment that the young and unattached would go out of their way to see.

Marriage is a central motif for Farhadi, and in the world that he has created in A Separation, The Past and now The Salesman, it is a difficult and pretty joyless business. This is a filmmaker with a gift like Ingmar Berman’s for creating immersive experience, pitching his audiences deep into the bracken of complicated, compromised interpersonal relationships. It is up to audiences to make what they will of this microcosm and its wider social significance.

The Salesman opens at the theatre where Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are the lead actors in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. Garish neon signs and an unmade double bed turn out to be theatre props. If there is some resonance between the disillusionment and betrayal of dreams in Arthur Miller’s iconic study of the mid-20th century US and the present-day in Iran, it is obliquely stated, but damn intriguing all the same.

All of a sudden, a life change for the couple. Deep cracks appear in the walls and windows of their apartment and they are forced to move out and into another apartment. It doesn’t have a bulldozer digging next door, but turns out to be a lot less secure. The previous tenant has not fully vacated, and has left a bedroom locked, filled with her belongings. A visitor who calls is expecting that she will still be there.

Meanwhile, in the scenes of Emad and the teenage boys in his literature class we are on reassuring solid ground. This interlude is a welcome window on his character outside the home. At school, he is genial and kind, an effective and popular teacher who can be a buddy to his students but knows where to draw the line. It is a significant insight into his character that we don’t get for Rana.

The former tenant in Emad and Rana’s new home ‘lived a wild life’ – code for prostitute. Emad realises that the couple has been betrayed through information withheld, but it is already too late. Without any knowledge of previous comings and goings, Rana has no need for caution, and she lets in an unidentified person who she believes to be her husband, then proceeds to the bathroom for a shower.

Rana is assaulted by this stranger, an attack that is neither seen, heard nor explicitly defined. How could it be otherwise? We only see she is severely traumatised.

Unwilling to allow the details of the assault to become public, she refuses Emad’s request they go to the police. The rift that opens between them only widens with Rana in retreat and Emad tracking down the assailant, impatient for justice. Rana even accuses him of seeking revenge. Complication and compromise follow when the attacker turns out to be someone with vulnerabilities of his own.

If the difficulties this couple face cannot be fully appreciated outside Iran, The Salesman explores territory that can, while rape is one of the least reported of crimes. With handheld camera, a modest set, excellent actors and a sensitive and intelligent screenplay, Farhadi has covered some very difficult territory and got us all thinking.

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

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     My Cousin Rachel

Handsome, lush, gorgeous to look at and not nearly as over the top as the trailer suggests. Romantic obsession has been plausibly updated, as a young man who is used to male company – Sam Clafin excellent in the role –  falls hard for the allure of the unknown.     3.5 Stars

 

       Neruda

A playful, stylish portrait of the Chilean hero, poet and politician who led the authorities a lively fandango when he found himself an outlaw. Not exactly informative, but a fictitious, bumbling assassin in hot pursuit is a clever device that points to future real-life events.     3.5 Stars

 

    20th Century Women

An utterly charming film about messy ordinary lives, gifted with a delicious performance from Annette Bening as a single mum whose teenage son at 15 is at a dangerous age. Two young women are co-opted to help out and nearly steal the show, but Bening, sunshine and showers, holds her own.     4.5 Stars

 

 

     Don’t Tell

A modest drama, with a compelling central performance from Sara West. It relates the events that led to Australia’s commission into child sexual abuse within institutions, like the church, that tried to blame a few bad apples, but didn’t own the problem and tried to cover it up. Small film, big topic.     4 Stars

 

 

    Their Finest

A spirited romantic comedy set during the London blitz when scriptwriters at the Ministry for Information (read propaganda) had to deliver movies the British public could feel good about despite being down to the wire. Sweet characters with sharp dialogue plus some British farce at its silly best, and one for the forgotten women who helped win that war.    3.5 Stars

 

    Colossal

Everything is connected. The premise that underpins this tale of small-mindedness in small town America, gets a bold workout here, weaving the lives of a bunch of slackers with the supernatural threat in a foreign city. Improbable at the very least, but it works. Cutting across genre boundaries, it’s witty, clever and really different.    3.5 Stars

 

    Beauty and the Beast

Everything has been thrown at this, but for all the talent, the  SFX and CGI, and motion capture to nail the Beast’s facial expressions, it isn’t as thrillingly entertaining as it should be. Over-produced, and not as good as its original, the animated version from 1991.    2.5 Stars

     

     Loving

If US civil rights history makes us think only of freedom marches and passionate speeches, then this understated story of an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia makes us think again. Inarticulate or reticent characters aren’t always compelling on screen, but the loving couple whose story this is based on never wavered, finally won the day, and it’s moving and impressive.   3.5 Stars

 

    The Eagle Huntress

A tale of equal opportunity for Kazakhi girls set against the beautiful Mongolian steppe stretching to infinity. It’s a grand vision, but let down by clumsy handling. Occasional voiceover directs us towards the big finish, with ‘you can do anything’ lyrics over final credits, but the doco seems put together as a crowd-pleaser rather than for the authentic deal.     2.5 Stars

 

       Toni Erdmann

Goofball, unhinged antics abound from a dad desperate to re-connect with his daughter, a corporate professional who has lost touch with him, and herself. Although some improv work needed a stern edit, it is funny, sad, touching, and one of the most unusual films you’ll see all year.    4.5 Stars

 

             Moonlight

It finds something lyrical, beauty and poetry, in coming-of-age for a young man who is gay, black, poor and without prospects. It’s no American dream and it finds a role model where you’d least expect to, a bit of a stretch. Naturalistic dialogue sometimes hard to understand, but feelings unmistakable.   4 Stars

 

     Hidden Figures

Plenty to feel good about in this traditional Hollywood quest with radical and such surprising outcomes. Based on historical facts, loosely assembled, the uplifting story of the first ‘computers’ at NASA, the African-American women who knew their math and helped get the US into space. A hearty 3.5 Stars.

 

 

Manchester by the Sea

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It is no small irony that the main character in Manchester by the Sea is a dependable handyman who can fix anything and everything. The problems that daily life present him with, like blocked drains and snowbound porches, are relatively simple and straightforward, requiring a bit of brawn and stoicism.

It’s when it comes to dealing face-to-face with clients that Lee (Casey Affleck) has difficulties. A blocked cistern or a leaky tap may be nothing compared with a testy female client looking for offence, or another one trying to flirt with him. Clients can be rude and demanding, or charming and welcoming but whatever they do, they get the same stony response. Over a series of interactions, we see that Lee has a bit of a problem. It comes into sharp focus when he throws a punch at strangers at a bar, for little apparent reason, a chilling reminder of the one-punch phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.

Life suddenly becomes complicated for Lee when his older brother dies prematurely. Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to heart failure, leaving behind his teenage son, his only child, in Lee’s care. Sixteen-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a bolshy pain in the neck, if ever there was one, who believes he has all rights and no responsibilities. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Patrick. Is he obnoxious because he can’t grieve properly for his dad? Maybe. Either way, it turns out that both he and Lee have trouble managing their emotions in dealing with pain and loss.

I’ve read that the idea for this film was taken to Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director, by some high-profile friends of his in the business, including Matt Damon, with the request that he work on it and make it his own. Giving an emotionally traumatized young man the guardianship of a nephew who needs him is a great idea. When Patrick comes to understand that he can’t be close again with the mother (Gretchen Mol) who left the family years before, he sees that his Uncle Lee is all he has. Lee is it.

As the circumstances behind Lee’s withdrawal from the world are revealed, it is heart rending. He is broken and he can’t fix himself. Every now and then you hear about a trauma like this, and you wonder how the survivors could ever get over it. When Lee meets his former wife Randi (Michelle Williams) again, she has begun to rebuild. His own predicament is etched in stone.

Around ten years have passed since the family tragedy, and Lee still cannot move on. Will he heal eventually, the film asks? Lonergan, who has said he wanted to explore the limits to healing, hasn’t put a creative foot wrong.

Manchester by the Sea is a fine film that has been garlanded with awards and critical acclaim. As it didn’t speak to me as strongly as I expected it to, I’ve come to think that I needed to hear more from Lee, some of the inarticulate speech of his troubled heart. Even though the obvious point is that he cannot express or reach out, more of his inner life would have served the film well, with less of the reactive violence and more of Lee the person from screenwriter Lonergan. The filmmaker has the language—he is the son of psychiatrists—and co-wrote Analyze This, incidentally, the hilarious comedy with Robert de Niro and Billy Crystal as the mafioso and his psychiatrist. Lonergan had wonderful actors in Affleck and Williams. It would have worked.

The Massachusetts fishing village that serves as the landscape of a young man’s inner life, seems to be in a state of permafrost. I wonder how the community of Manchester by the Sea feels about this bleak tale of grief and loss that has brought it to everyone’s attention. It’s too bad that we never get to see the place in summer, but that would not have been true to the emotional arc of Lee’s journey.

4 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

I, Daniel Blake

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Review © Jane Freebury

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It is clear that Ken Loach, who turned 80 this year, will never retire. Making films about people who are disadvantaged and dispossessed has been for him a life mission since his television work in the 1960s, and long before he started collaborating with his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty. Loach is a social justice warrior whose work is often gritty and confronting, but there have been lighter and tender moments that have shone through in love across the cultural divide (Ae Fond Kiss), with a sense of fun (Riff-Raff) and mischief (The Angel’s Share).

The task of standing up for people who have to struggle with injustice and lack of opportunity has not been getting any easier, or less relevant.  A tumultuous 2016 shows that fair outcomes for all, amongst other things, can’t be taken for granted in a democracy. No, it looks like the mission is only more pressing.

Someone suggested—was it Loach?—that Jimmy’s Hall in 2014 would be his last, but he has bounced back with one of his best. I, Daniel Blake won the director his second Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year. And the first was only recent, 10 years ago.

When Blake (Dave Johns) experiences a heart attack, his doctor says he should give up work, but the welfare department decides otherwise, on the basis of boxes checked or unchecked, that he is not a suitable candidate for sickness benefit. It’s okay for him to go on jobseeker’s allowance benefit, however, though for Blake this means a never-ending round of failed job applications and workshops to improve his CV.

Everything has to be done online, and Blake doesn’t know the first thing about the digital world. What are the prospects of a joiner just shy of 60 years of age who is good at his job but doesn’t know how to use a computer? A lack of skills in IT today is close to illiteracy.

Age has little to do with his sense of helplessness, as Loach ably shows. Indeed, Blake looks to be in rude health. Johns, otherwise known as a stand-up comedian, makes his character alert and engaging and that bad heart doesn’t seem to be the result of poor habits or health management.

Blake encounters a young woman with two young children in tow at the department. She is protesting that she was late her appointment for genuine reasons and her desperation and the inflexibility of staff cause Blake to step in. Londoner Katie (Hayley Squires) has just arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, sent north because of the lack of social housing. They soon become firm friends.

Despite the feistiness, Katie cannot afford to feed herself and her two children at the same time, or put money aside for their school uniforms. Daniel can help her turn her new flat into a home. He has a few tips on how to save on heating, like covering windows with bubble wrap, and he looks after the kids and builds her a bookcase while she is out.

In different ways, however, the bureaucratic trap in which they are each caught eventually pushes them to the end of their tether. Both characters carry on courageously, though the underlying desperation shows through. Johns and Squires both keep it real, with wonderfully engaging performances.

The story of Daniel and Katie is told in Loach’s typical workmanlike style. It can be irritating to see how the director is pulls openly at his audiences’ heart strings and Loach has little time for the aesthetic possibilities of his medium. Yet this film demonstrates exactly why Loach keeps on working. His didacticism gets the better of him at times, making it easy for us to see what he’s up to, and we always know where he is coming from, but he is a master at eliciting empathy for his characters and their world, beyond the beltway.

Loach is as good as he ever was at drawing us into the frame, and at getting us involved and engaged on a deeply empathetic, humanist level.

4 Stars

 

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Joe Cinque’s Consolation

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© Jane Freebury

 

 

As stories go, the story of Joe Cinque is at the very least alarming. A young Canberra man who was guilty of nothing more than an excess of loving tolerance towards his live-in girlfriend, and it cost him his life.

The end of their affair is a cautionary tale, a revelation of the dangers that are inherent in taking too much responsibility for others, as Cinque did for his loved one’s health and wellbeing. It reveals at the same time the dangers of community taking too little.

Were Joe Cinque’s Consolation not based on a true story, we might dismiss it as another dark chapter of suburban malaise, a toxic mix of the bizarre and the banal. If only it were not true.

This first feature from Sotiris Dounoukos, a graduate in law turned filmmaker who was studying in Canberra at the time of Cinque’s death in 1997, is a principled exploration of events leading up to the night he was killed. Dounoukos and his team, including co-writer Matt Rubinstein, have been brave to tackle this daunting project from the recent past with many stakeholders, including the families of principal characters who are still very much alive.

There is much to praise here. The screenplay by Dounoukos and Matt Rubinstein, that sounds pitch perfect. The performances are uniformly really good, especially Maggie Naouri’s take on Anu Singh, by far the most complex role in the film. The direction is restrained yet skilful, negotiating the many shoals on which melodrama so often founders. Overall, the film is a credit to all involved, including the young actors, who besides Naouri, are relative unknowns.

In addition to the challenge of providing a portrayal of Singh, the law student who injected Cinque with lethal doses of heroin after she had rendered him comatose with a potent sedative, the film explores the vexed question of responsibility. There were people who were aware, like Madhavi Rao, Singh’s close friend, of plans afoot, or even just vaguely aware. There were dinner party guests, there were dealers, there were enablers. Were they somehow in thrall to Singh? Did they ever imagine that events could transpire as they did? Community duty of care is one of the key questions the film puts to its audience.

The circumstances of Cinque’s death have denied his family closure, and responsibility for it has remained in law at least a somewhat open question. Just as Garner’s book Joe Cinque’s Consolation raised questions about the way his death was dealt with in court in 2004, the film Joe Cinque’s Consolation asks the audience to review and reconsider.

While it is difficult to see the film as an adaptation of Garner’s work, to which Dounoukos was granted the rights, film and book are certainly complementary and can be experienced back-to-back. The film version of events leading up to the death can then be followed by Garner’s personal account of the court proceedings that dealt with it.

There are sensitivities and pitfalls aplenty to manage, but Joe Cinque’s Consolation emerges as a very fine film indeed. It is nuanced, respectful, subtle and it makes the inexorable progress towards a death foretold really powerful.

It shows how it was possible for Cinque to die in the way that he did, answering my first question. My second question relates to the way it was dealt with in court, but that remains unanswered.

I became a resident of Canberra in the same year that this 26-year-old engineer died. It was the same year that the implosion of the Canberra Hospital took place, another bizarre event that is incidentally referenced in the film as well. The city of Canberra and its environs are revealed in the many location stills interspersed through the tightly observed drama. These shots open it out, asking how a city could carry on regardless as a young man lay dying. It is something we can all ask ourselves.

Although it inevitably shares space on the big screen with chick flicks and the domestic noirs with femme fatales now in vogue, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, is never in any danger of being trivialized by the demands of entertainment.  It is too serious and intelligent and nuanced for that.

4 Stars

 

Also published on the Canberra Critics Circle blog:

http://ccc-canberracriticscircle.blogspot.com.au/