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South Solitary -- Film Review

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SYDNEY -- A lamb in a pink baby's bonnet rounds out a troupe of self-consciously quirky characters in Shirley Barrett's pretty but vacuous romantic drama "South Solitary." Set on a desolate island off the south Australian coast in 1927, it deploys an arsenal of whimsical vignettes but very little plot in making a fairly labored point about the human need for companionship.

Wonderfully evocative of time and place, the film seemed to charm a portion of the Sydney Film Festival's opening night audience. But a wan script, some strained acting and a surfeit of excruciating longueurs that make up its two-hour run time will test the patience of the average cinema-goer, yielding little but a mild sense of bafflement. The film opens locally in July.

Miranda Otto dons a series of meticulously constructed period costumes to play desperate and dateless Meredith Appleton, a determinedly cheerful 35-year-old whose moral compass oscillates wildly. She arrives on South Solitary carrying the aforementioned pet lamb, charged with cooking and cleaning for the new head lighthouse keeper, her persnickety Uncle George (Barry Otto).

The previous lighthouse keeper committed suicide and it's not hard to see why. The terrain, whipped often by gale-force winds, is unforgiving, the isolation taxing and the job, as one character points out, is one of "unrelenting drudgery and tedium." Barrett depicts the dreary monotony of lighthouse life with too much success; the ennui of the characters' lives spills out of the screen in waves.

Meredith's dalliance with the roguish assistant lighthouse keeper Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol) earns the ire of his brittle wife (a standout Essie Davis) and the man and his family are banished. Another misadventure leaves Meredith alone on the island with the taciturn Jack Fleet (Marton Csokas), a shell-shocked ex-soldier with a wobbly accent intended to be Welsh. The second half of the film is given over to an agonizingly slow courtship between these two storm-tossed souls.

"South Solitary" is only Barrett's second film since her Camera d'Or-winning debut, the wickedly funny "Love Serenade." Where that 1996 film was playfully satiric and deeply weird, this one just feels long.

Venue: Sydney Film Festival
Production companies: Macgowan Films, Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Screen NSW, Omnilab Media
Cast: Miranda Otto, Marton Csokas, Barry Otto, Essie Davis, Rohan Nichol
Writer-director: Shirley Barrett
Producer: Marian Macgowan
Director of photography: Anna Howard
Production designer: Paul Heath
Costume designer: Edie Kurzer
Music: Mary Finsterer
Editor: Denise Haratzis
Sales: E1 Entertainment
No rating, 120 minutes