'Joe Cinque's Consolation': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A feature-length funeral march.

One of Australia's most infamous true crimes comes in for its close-up in director Sotiris Dounoukos' first feature.

An adaptation of Australian writer Helen Garner's acclaimed 2004 book, Joe Cinque's Consolation is the sorry true story of Canberra law student Anu Singh, who killed her boyfriend in 1997 by lacing his drink with Rohypnol and injecting him full of heroin. Garner's book focused on her interactions with the shell-shocked parents of the murdered Cinque, and on the trials of Singh and her friend and co-accused Madhavi Rao.

First-time feature director Sotiris Dounoukos and his co-screenwriter Matt Rubinstein end their story before the matter goes to court, preferring to illustrate the period leading up to the crime itself. That approach means they have to make concrete what was elusive in Garner's Janet Malcolm-indebted investigation into memory, culpability and grief, and the film suffers from the psychologically broad way in which the filmmakers have joined the dots. Titan View will release Joe Cinque, well acted but a dirge quite literally, in Oz, beyond which its prospects look slim.

The film presents Joe (Jerome Meyer) as the most solicitous and long-suffering of boyfriends. An engineer a few years out of college, he looks slightly startled around his girlfriend's law-school buddies, who sip red wine at candlelit dinner parties while proffering conversation-starters like "an unexamined life is a life half lived". The dinner party at which we meet this bunch of future lawmakers is also a last supper. The glassy-eyed Madhavi (Sacha Joseph) has informed the guests – though not the oblivious Joe – that Anu will take her own life after the meal; just the kind of parlor game to thrill a certain type of undergraduate.

Anu (Maggie Naouri, conspicuously lighter-skinned than the real Singh) is suffering from all manner of ailments, chiefly vanity. She books herself in for liposuction but never goes through with it, and she blames Joe for a dependence on Ipecac, which induces vomiting. She asks her friend Len, a farmer's son, if he has access to a gun, but soon decides that heroin is the least painful way to go: "It'll be like like falling asleep after an amazing orgasm," she tells Madhavi, who is willing to help unquestioningly.

Joe's concern for Anu doesn't preclude the suspicion that her problems are psychosomatic, but his entreaties to Madhavi for help are met with an icy stare and the declaration that she believes her friend. Her obedience to Anu and lack of empathy for Joe is plainly territorial, and Madhavi emerges as the film’s most cold-blooded character; a very different appraisal from Garner’s, who saw a girl who always wanted to help and didn't know how to stand up for herself. Here, when Anu calls her to tell her that the suicide is back on, Madhavi smiles.

Not that Anu seems exactly dimensional, either. She's manipulative, narcissistic, entitled and desperate for attention, so it's to Naouri's enormous credit that she still comes off as something resembling a human being. Anu's plan to end her own life morphs, without comment from Madhavi, into a plan to end Joe's as well, and another dinner party is convened to mark the occasion. While the plan is being turned over in one of the many sunless living rooms of which the film is made up, a TV news bulletin shows footage of the bungled 1997 demolition of Royal Canberra Hospital, which killed one person and injured nine others.

The line drawn by the filmmakers between Singh and the city itself is echoed by the film's memorably oppressive evocation of Canberra; a taxi driver in Garner's book recalls driving around the capital’s empty streets and wondering if there'd been a gas attack. Dounoukos cuts back and forth between curtain-drawn suburban interiors, persuasively cluttered by production designer Marisa Martin, and DP Simon Chapman's handsome if interstitial portraits of Canberra's leafy, immaculate boulevards.

Garner's book was about restoring an identity to the voiceless Cinque, and the film is at pains to do the same. We see him at work, where a colleague (Josh McConville) advises him to end things with Anu for the sake of his own wellbeing, and at the house of his parents, who attest to his saintliness. But the film’s nod towards Joe's individual life, distinct to his relationship with Singh, never gets remotely close to his interior one. This is the story of an unraveling to which he is not party. Where his parents provided a way to access Joe's story in Garner's book, they are largely absent from the adaptation. That leaves the culprits – and their company wears thin. The film’s coda leaves a bitter taste, and the lack of illumination is flatly unsatisfying, though perhaps faithful for that.

Production Company: Consolation Productions

Cast: Maggie Naouri, Jerome Meyer, Sacha Joseph, Josh McConville, Gia Carides

Director: Sotiris Dounoukos

Writers: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Rubinstein

Producers: Sotiris Dounoukos, Matt Reeder, Donna Hensler

Executive Producers: Ivan Bradaric, David Chong, Steven Decosta, George Konstantinou, Harry Konstantinou, Sue Murray, Josh Pomeranz

Line Producer: Shannon Wilson

Director of Photography: Simon Chapman

Production Designer: Marisa Martin

Costume Designer: Dannielle Alexander

Editors: Martin Connor, Angelos Angelidis

Sound Designer: Sam Gain-Emery

Composer: Antonio Gambale

Casting Director: Kirsty McGregor

Sales: Urban Distribution International

 

14A, 102 minutes

 

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