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Teenagers dominate the cancer-ward weepie these days, with Me, Earl and the Dying Girl the latest to win over audiences with a precisely calibrated combination of laughs, pathos and remarkably unblemished good looks. In Force of Destiny, Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox (Man of Flowers, Innocence) ditches the youngsters in favor of the middle-aged (although only one of the central pair is middle aged — you’ll never guess which). An unfashionably sincere declaration of gratitude, the new film sees Cox enlist his Molokai star David Wenham as his own avatar. Cox received a liver transplant in 2009, and his book Tales From the Cancer Ward forms the partial basis for this defiantly unadorned, dramatically rather flat tale of hope revived through love.
Wenham plays Robert, a sculptor living on a property outside Melbourne who finds out he has liver cancer and is given months to live. His estranged wife (The Water Diviner’s Jacqueline McKenzie) wants to move back in to take care of him but Robert brushes her off, communicating mostly through their daughter Poppy (Hannah Frederickson), a children’s puppeteer. Robert’s Melbourne dealer introduces him to Maya (Shahana Goswami, Ra.One), a strikingly beautiful young marine biologist from India. The two become increasingly close, to the dismay of Robert’s wife and delight of his daughter. Once Robert is on the transplant waiting list, Robert and his three adoring attendants begin a waiting game.
Force of Destiny constitutes a series of scenes repeated with variation in pitch: Robert in hospital, Robert fretted over by his wife and daughter, then soothed by the devotion of Maya. The character of Maya is solicitous, unquestioning, mysterious but earthy: a flattened version of a real woman. Cox’s documentaries Calcutta and The Kingdom of Nek Chand demonstrated a sincere interest in the subcontinent, but the Indian sections in Force of Destiny — in which Maya returns to India to be by the bedside of her uncle (Mohan Agashe), also stricken by cancer — feel organic only to the film’s financing.
A running voiceover in which Robert voices his sense of disorientation — “I want to go home, but I don’t know where home is” — is combined with impressionistic montages in which images flit beneath his eyelids as he lies in the hospital. These shards of memory are shot on film stock; for Cox in particular, as fitting an emblem as any of the past. Scenes set in the present tense are shot digitally by regular Cox DP Ian Jones in the no-frills, slightly televisual style the director has adopted for the last decade.
Shooting in the same hospital in which the director received his own transplant, Cox is most successful in capturing the miniature moments of personally titanic import. Wordless tableaus seen from Robert’s POV — of a man placing roses on the bed of his prostrate wife; of a dying woman applying makeup before farewelling her child — rep the film’s most genuinely affecting moments.
That Robert is merely a spectator to them is part of the problem. The character is a vessel for a public health message — an entreaty to give the gift of life by donating organs (text saying just that precedes the credits). For all the worthiness of that message, Force of Destiny feels more earnest than some of the better PSAs, and just as literal-minded. For all the abstract discursions the film throws at you its imaginative scope feels very much earth-bound. Cox’s long days of inward-looking have led to a film in which the central character does nothing but, and Robert’s navel-gazing might be understandable in the circumstances, but it’s neither illuminating nor even affecting. By making it all about him, Cox has squeezed us out.
Production Companies: Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Illumination Films
Writer/Director: Paul Cox
Cast: David Wenham, Shahana Goswami, Jacqueline McKenzie, Hannah Frederickson, Terry Norris, Genevieve Picot, Seema Biswas, Mohan Agashe, Kim Gyngell
Producers: Mark Patterson, Maggie Miles, Baby Mathew Somatheeram
Associate Producers: Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Anil Acharya
Executive Producer: Shaun Miller
Director of Photography: Ian Jones
Sound Recordist: James Currie
Production Designer: Asher Bilu
Art Director: Chris Haywood
Make-Up & Hair: Delia Silvan
Editors: Jonathan auf der Heide, Mark Atkin
Composer: Paul Grabowsky
Sound Designers: James Currie, Tom Heuzenroeder
Sales: ANZ – CinemaPlus
No rating, 109 minutes
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