Returning native Fred Schepisi corrals an all-star and mostly Aussie cast for this respectful though morose adaptation of Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White’s acclaimed novel.
The actors are probably what recommends this dour melodrama but it’s not enough. French moviemakers do these family get-togethers wherein no on really wants to get together so much better than any other nationality.
Fair disclosure: I’ve never read any of White’s novels including this one (the first apparently adapted into a movie). So I don’t bring the appreciation of the source material that allowed Oz reviewers to speak in respectful albeit only vaguely enthusiastic tones about this film when it debuted there over a year ago.
Nothing can sully the enjoyment of watching the performances of such pros as Charlotte Rampling, as the aging socialite who takes to her death bed with such aggressive determination, and Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush as her spoiled children, who hover like vultures to divide the spoils.
To the uninitiated it all seems so predictable and dreary. The actors and Schepisi’s direction of them are impeccable but so what? A brilliantly designed death watch is still a death watch.
Rampling has the more difficult role, meaning it’s hard to get a handle on exactly who this Elizabeth was and is. Apparently a one-time rich bitch who treated her children as intolerable burdens, she is now dying — the year is 1972 — or at least has decided it’s time. Her far-flung progeny swoop in.
Davis’ badly aging Dorothy has little to show for her marriage into French royalty other than a bad divorce and meaningless title. Rush’s Basil has considerably more to show for his European ventures — a British knighthood for his acting skills but apparently little actual money and, worse, a flurry of bad reviews and scant job prospects following an ill-advised King Lear.
Old quarrels get revived with no hope of resolution and flashbacks very poorly clue you in on the back stories for these many recriminations. At the bottom is a woman whose sensuality and amorality caused everyone from her late husband to her children nothing but heartache.
She apparently achieved something of an epiphany in a long-ago storm on a island where a vacation home got destroyed but the movie adaptation by Judy Morris fumbles its significance badly.
The supporting cast is stellar and that includes Schepisi’s daughter Alexandra, who plays a nurse who catches the eye of her patient’s son for a moment.
Helen Morse (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”) has a bizarre turn as a housekeeper who as a Holocaust survivor entertains the dying woman with German cabaret routines but comes off more like those of a former cast member of “Cabaret.”
One fine thing is the jazz-infused score by Paul Grabowsky, which goes hand in glove with Ian Baker’s luminous cinematography of old buildings, vibrant gardens and the Australian landscape.
Opens: September 7, 2012 (Sycamore Entertainment)
Production company: Paper Bark Films
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Charlotte Rampling, Robyn Nevin, Colin Friels, Helen Morse, Alexander Schepisi
Director: Fred Schepisi
Screenwriter: Judy Morris
Based on the book by: Patrick White
Producers: Antony Waddington, Gregory Read
Executive producers: Jonathan Shteinman, Edward Simpson
Director of photography: Ian Baker
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Costume designer: Terry Ryan
Music: Paul Grabowsky
Editor: Kate Williams
No rating, 120 minutes