Monday, 29 November 2010
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Shirley Barrett’s debut feature, 1996’s Love Serenade, won the Cannes Camera d’Or prize that year, and established her as an interesting if still developing talent. That film was an oddball, blackly humorous small town sex-farce with a darkly sensual mythological twist, and wasn’t a total success, but it was engaging and curiously memorable. Barrett’s career since had realised only one film, the little-seen and generally dismissed showbiz satire Walk the Talk (2000), but she’s emerged again this year with South Solitary, a comedy-drama set on a remote island off the coast of South Australia, in 1927. Barrett uses the star of Love Serenade, Miranda Otto, as her muse again here, playing Meredith Appleton, a woman in her mid-‘30s who travels to the titular island in the company of her punctilious uncle George Wadsworth (Barry Otto, Miranda’s real-life father). He’s a veteran lighthouse keeper who’s been placed in charge of the lighthouse on South Solitary to get the notoriously unreliable station back in shape, after the last head keeper blew himself up with a stick of gelignite.
The only other people on South Solitary are also part of the lighthouse station. Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol) has a wife Alma (Essie Davis) and three children, Nettie (Annie Martin), Tom (Reef
Meredith’s confession of her troubled past to
Barrett’s film was inspired by her reading of histories of the lighthouse service, and many of the anecdotes she uncovered made it into the film, particularly a true incident in which a dead keeper’s body was preserved in a bathtub. Here, that body was that of the previous keeper after his suicide, a fact of which Meredith is unaware, hinted at by the
South Solitary tells a readily familiar type of story, and the narrative reflexes, as well as the eventual direction, are predictable, particularly as they echo many other semi-art house movies of the past decade or so. It's the recognisable formula of the supposedly non-formula film, about loveable losers in remote places, a well that Aussie filmmakers have visited more than a few times too often. The clichés that dot the landscape of South Solitary are its major limitation, that and over-length, being somewhat distended at two hours. This is particularly surprising considering that the beauty of Barrett’s first film was the way in which she set up a musty kind of story, and yet led to a bewilderingly odd and memorable twist. Yet Barrett here, to a certain extent, seems to count on the familiarity of her ideas, checking off with almost ritualistic rigour the inevitable events, and her sense of rhythm is, at least, impeccable. She essays a variety of behavioural cinema, treating her characters a little bit like laboratory animals – a sore metaphor, because it suggests her efforts are detached and clinical, which they aren’t, and yet still, I think, accurate – in measuring responses to a deliberately limited set of choices. Small details are important to such films as creative stunt work is to kung fu films, and Barrett’s real emphasis is on unfolding scenes with nuance and constant humour that underpins the off-kilter emotional state of its main characters. Harry’s seduction of Meredith is a long, superbly acted scene where the end is always obvious, and yet the point is watching the minuet of evasion, suggestion, appeal and eager surrender involved.
Meredith, on first arriving in the house she and her uncle will share, is horrified to hear the panicked chirping of young birds when she lights the stove; later, at her behest, Harry ascends to pluck a nest out of the chimney and place it in a sheltered abode away from the houses. His action is both one of solicitous fellowship, a motherly male act that’s also a carefully judged act of flirtation with the neurotically concerned Meredith – Nettie later destroys the nest and the chicks within as her revenge on Meredith. Nettie’s an accurate portrait of the latent mix of mother and assassin in little girls: she keeps a collection of her scabs in a box, tends the pigeons, dresses the pet lamb in a cardigan, and walks in on Harry and Meredith screwing, not batting an eye as she delivers a message to her father before aiming the word “slut” at the woman prostrate beneath him. Harry’s façade of concern is spiced up by his cheeky, facile anti-authoritarianism in making fun of
The lengthy pseudo-romance of the last third is hypnotically intimate, Fleet’s cringing distaste for having to communicate does not so much dissipate as alter slightly as his speech becomes less fierce and disjointed, his own strange blend of the alienated and the devoted coming into its own when he’s left alone to take charge of the light and of Meredith, training her in how to light and maintain the wick and to communicate in semaphore herself. It’s a vision of the lighthouse service as a rest cure for damaged souls. South Solitary’s admirable visualisation is supplied by DOP Anna Howard, who paints the island in lustrous hues, and wrings a sense of blasted grandeur out of the landscape, and moody, scantly lit interiors, and the score, a compilation of works by Mary Finsterer, conveys a sense of swelling passion beneath all the small, everyday assassinations of the soul. Whilst the familiarity of Barrett’s story progression weighs down her achievement, she successfully keeps her work balanced between gentle comedy and something darker and crueller, and it’s a film essayed with humour, detail, and telling humanity.