By Chris Wallace
Three Australian films are garnering good reviews and good enough audiences – all screening at once too, not dotted through the year. A freak statistical blip, or is something going right in the local film industry after a long period where things have mostly been pretty ordinary?
Red Dog, Face To Face and The Eye of the Storm could not on the surface be more different. Red Dog is a feel good film about a sassy red kelpie from the Pilbara. Face To Face is a gritty drama that takes on several aspects of an Australia still balkanised, unless one works resolutely to overcome it, on race, sex and class lines. The Eye of the Storm is a dark psychological masterpiece built around the dying machinations of a sexually voracious matriarch who swept all before her, and whose son and daughter bear the competitive scars. The casts and directors are different. The production houses are different. So what’s the common factor? Something very, very important. They’re all based on underlying literary works, not original scripts.
Red Dog is based on the Louis de Bernieres novel of the same name, Face To Face is one part of David William’s “Jack Manning” trilogy of plays on the theme of collaborative justice and The Eye of the Storm, of course, is based on the Patrick White novel of the same name.
Don’t mistake this for a pitch about snotty writing. The opening paragraph of de Bernieres’ book is fruity and familiar, not toney:
‘Strewth,’ exclaimed Jack Collins, ‘that dog’s a real stinker! I don’t know how he puts up with himself. If I dropped bombs like that, I’d walk around with my head in a paper bag, just to protect myself.’
Herman Melville it is not.
Conversely, White’s book opens with a dedication to Maie Casey, wife of the then Governor-General Dick Casey. (If you’ve never read it, seek out Di Langmore’s terrific 1997 biography of the unexpectedly racy Maie, Glittering Surfaces: A Life of Maie Casey). This is followed by not one but three epigraphs – one from a No play, another from Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata and the last from Canberra poet David Campbell. Campbell’s is especially appropriate to send us on out way into White’s testing story:
Men and boughs break;
Praise life while you walk and wake;
It is only lent.
With that kind of build up, you know you’re not going to get a story about a red kelpie with attitude.
Low brow or high brow, the point about making films based on underlying works is that the stories within have already been properly panel-beaten and road-tested before they get near a director and cinematographer. It’s so difficult to get a book published, and the publication process generally so exhaustive and exhausting, that the end story can’t help but be stronger than something dreamt up on the fly in a Darlo café or Carlton bar then written and rewritten through the measley number of drafts Australian film budgets can sustain. It’s an odds thing.
These three Australian films are good. They deserve our patronage. Don’t let the weekend go by without seeing at least a couple of them
Of the three The Eye of the Storm is the one that will have the most subtle but interesting impact. What a great moment to re-engage with Patrick White and what a perfect work to do it through. The novel was published in 1973, just before White won the Nobel Prize for Literature. White had been living in Centennial Park, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, for some years by then, and The Eye of the Storm is a quintessentially eastern suburbs story. It was part of a conscious project to “extend my range” to more sophisticated Australians, White wrote in his autobiographical Nobel note. A few more novels about sophisticated Australians wouldn’t go amiss now.
Director Fred Schepisi’s realisation of White’s story is unhurried, understated, masterful, and the performances astonishingly good. One quibble: the lighting. Melbourne born and raised Schepisi hasn’t really conveyed Sydney’s distinctive eastern suburbs light and environment. As a powerful and sensuous factor in its own right, that’s a loss.
The Eye of the Storm took me back to White’s letters. The novel’s composition gets quite a few mentions in David Marr’s edited collection. In one January 1971 letter to Cynthia and Sid Nolan, White talks about some unruly Canberrans – poet David Campbell and historian Manning Clark – misbehaving at a dinner party: “The Canberrans certainly behaved like canecutters from the north, as Manoly said afterwards…” The seventies. So long ago now.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 1 October 2011