Friday, May 25, 2012

SIFF Dispatch #3

(Fred Schepisi, Australia, 2011, 114 mins.)

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #2 (Eden)

"We're not really at our best when we're ourselves." So says a theater friend to Basil (Geoffrey Rush) at the start of Fred Schepisi's acerbic drama. The quote sums up the events to follow. Or at least it sums up the first two acts in which Sydney matriarch Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) and her children, Basil and Dorothy (Judy Davis), pretend to show more mutual concern than they really feel. Elizabeth is dying, so it's the polite thing to do--it's also a way to make sure she doesn't leave them out of her will. 

If that makes Sir Basil, a knighted actor, and Princess Dorothy, a disgraced royal, sound greedy, the truth is more complicated; both have fallen on hard times and their mother has always been their harshest critic. Granted, some viewers will write off the entire film because it's populated by such seemingly shallow people, except I didn't see them that way.

I enjoyed spending time with the sharp-tongued trio, and the more Schepisi reveals about their lives, the more manifest their isolation becomes (the unmarried Basil has been living in London, while the divorced Dorothy has been living in France). In other words, "unlikable" is a fairly reductive assessment, especially when most of the silver screen's wittiest characters could hardly be considered "nice." In that sense, Schepisi's Judy Morris-penned Patrick White adaptation reminded me of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but more in feel and tone than storyline.

What sounds like a play retrofitted for the cinema, however,  makes full use of the medium's possibilities. If anything, Schepisi and DP Ian Baker go too far, but it's fun to watch them wage a war against staginess. Their rococo approach is sometimes awkward, but always quite sumptuous.

Elizabeth, for instance, lives in a gorgeous estate, and Schepisi lingers over every detail of her luxurious surroundings. It's one thing to be rich, it's another to have good taste. But there are several scenes where he zooms in on a rose or cake or bowl of fruit to reveal blooms of mold or worms. The effect isn't as Gothic as it sounds, but it's certainly unsettling. Just as the well put-together Hunters are a mess inside, the decay seems to indicate that their noblesse oblige way of life is coming to an end.

And lest it seem as if this is one of those movies about "rich people's problems," Schepisi pays almost as much attention to Elizabeth's attendants, Mary (Maria Theodorakis), Lotte (Helen Morse), and Flora (the director's daughter, Alexandra Schepisi), who sets her sights on Sir Basil.

They may heed to her every beck and call, but they have lives of their own. There aren't enough of them for the film to bear comparison to The Grand Illusion or even Downton Abbey, but they certainly don't receive short shrift. This is partly because the women know Elizabeth better than her own children, but also because they wouldn't mind a mention in her will either—and why not; she has more than enough goods to go around.

So, the film pivots on a distribution of assets, a process left purposefully ambiguous. In the final scene, Elizabeth's solicitor, Arnold (John Gaden), explains the situation to Basil and Dorothy, but Schepisi had cut away from her last meeting with him, so it isn't clear what she decided. From the start of the movie, her memory had been failing; by the end, it's almost gone, so Schepisi suggests that Arnold finalized the will on his own. In which case, there's a message here about a woman who tried control her children, who tried to control her death, and who believed she could continue to exert control from beyond the grave. But no matter how powerful you think you are: there's always someone more powerful.

The Eye of the Storm plays Everett Performing Arts Center at 6:30pm on May 25, the Egyptian at 4pm on May 26, and the Egyptian at 6:30pm on May 27. Schepisi is scheduled to attend (he also directed Plenty with Meryl Streep and Roxanne with Steve Martin). As always, dates and times are subject to change. 

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