Director: Fred Schepisi. Paper Bark. (15)
Producers: Gregory J. Read, Antony Waddington.
Writer: Judy Morris.
Camera: Ian Baker.
Music: Paul Grabowsky.
Sets: Melinda Doring.
Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Charlotte Rampling, Alexandra Schepisi, Helen Morse, Colin Friels, Simon Stone.
Sydney, 1973: Matriarch Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling) controls everything around her: her children Basil (Rush) and Dorothy (Davis), her staff, the society around her. When she suffers a stroke and sensing her days are numbered, she decides on her most defiant act, to choose her time to die. As her children fuss around her to ensure they receive their inheritance after a lifetime of emotional neglect, the once great beauty toys with them until the time is right.
A twisted and bizarre slice of modern Gothic. It ticks all of that genre’s boxes, hingeing on sexual frankness and perversity, parental neglect, greedy and opportunistic servants and with a whiff of incest hanging in the air. The Hunters are an interesting family, psychologically speaking, so this is a welcome counselling session from Schepisi.
He adapts Patrick White’s celebrated 1973 novel into a showcase for masterful cinematic performance. Trouble is, he has concentrated too much on letting these actors develop wonderful characterisations, so his film as a whole atrophies and sinks. There is an electrifying film here waiting to get out, but Schepisi is unable or unwilling to let this happen.
None the less, the trio of leading performances are quite excellent, as one would expect from these professionals. Rampling has been making some exceptional choices over the past few years. This highly sensual and exotic actress was the correct, probably the only, choice to play Elizabeth Hunter. This is a woman who enjoys teasing her tightly wound up daughter with lines such as “your father’s penis”, she sleeps with her friends husbands friends and kisses away being found out with a dismissive “it’s only flesh on flesh”. She also sleeps with her daughter’s boyfriend, telling her “Well, you didn’t look like you wanted it”.
It’s unusual to see sexually active women over their 50’s in cinema without straying into prurient cougar or MILF territory, but Rampling is the right performer to convey such a character with intelligence and strength. There is an air of Norma Desmond with a blue rinse about her. The film opens with a shot of her stood proudly in the surf near her country residence, full of life and vigour but for the duration of the film she is completely horizontal and decrepit.
Rush has a ball as the fading drama queen who sees his return home as an excuse to get legless and get his leg over, quickly nestling into the bed of his mother’s favoured nurse Flora (played by the director’s daughter Alexandra). Basil has a touching bravado to him, vainly signing autographs for adoring admirers but he is a lone soul at heart, rudely denigrating his nurse/lover and reciting Shakespeare in the middle of the desert with no audience to hear.
Better still is the incredible physicality of Davis’ Dorothy. Davis herself has described her character as suffering an “arrested development” and she forces this interpretation throughout. From her first meeting with her crotchety mother, Davis is twitchy and on edge, an awkward movement culminates in the most muddled of embraces, as if both participants are visibly repelled by the other. Mother and daughter pat each other on the shoulders, simultaneously pushing each other away – the most brittle of emotional multi-tasking. In order to properly touch her mother, Davis has to order the nurse to leave the room, climbing into bed with her like the little girl she still is in many respects.
The bodily arsenal she deploys continues, as if Dorothy inhabits her very DNA – the head jerks on a stiff neck, tendons at full stretch, those admirably toned legs flail about in the most ungainly fashion as if she is a new born lamb in heels.
This is an elegant and intelligently written piece by Morris, full of nuanced characters whose psyches, as White noted in his novel, are examined, ridiculed and skewered with surgical precision. But this is also a cold, bereft story that had previously been deemed unfilmable, so full credit to her for creating a diverting, if not entirely substantial world of familial selfishness.
Schepisi doesn’t help by reclining back and trying to let the words speak for the film – he leaves himself pissing in the wind with a grand film with searing acting and everything going for it, but fails to push the product further. He squeezes in some clever visuals; this family is decaying and the rot is seen not only in Rampling’s fading looks but also as a maggot rummages around in the food at a society party Dorothy attends, Basil spies a fly in a jar and he refers to his diminishing libido: “I’ve been having a bit of trouble down there recently”. But Schepisi ultimately fails to fire on the cylinders in what could have been his masterpiece.