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Australian filmmaker Ben Lawrence follows up his 2018 documentary Ghosthunter with Hearts and Bones, another Sydney-set story about buried secrets and the desire to shake off unwanted memories. The director’s handsome debut feature, which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and will make its international debut at TIFF next month, flirts with becoming a savage indictment of affluent do-gooderism, but finally swerves to land on a vision of fraternity that’s altogether more optimistic.
Hugo Weaving stars as a PTSD-suffering photojournalist whose friendship with a Sudanese migrant dredges up old wounds and wreaks havoc on each man’s relationship. Lawrence and his co-writer Beatrix Christian — who worked with the filmmaker’s father, Ray, on Jindabyne — introduce Daniel (Weaving) on a roadside somewhere in Iraq. A fixer has dropped him off at the scene of a carjacking, and he ignores the man’s warnings that the area isn’t safe. His camera zeroes in on survivors as well as the dead, and his commitment to getting the shot has fatal consequences.
Back in his chic warehouse-loft in a leafy suburb of Sydney, Daniel never mentions the incident or its aftermath. He’s too busy preparing for an upcoming retrospective, and distracted by the news that his partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney) is pregnant. This news induces horror, for reasons that become clear only later. The pair’s argument is interrupted by the arrival of taxi driver Sebastian (Andrew Luri) on their doorstep. Sebastian wants Daniel to photograph the community choir he runs with other largely African migrants in the city’s western suburbs. Daniel tries to fob him off, then suffers the first of several panic attacks.
Sebastian’s solicitude in the aftermath puts Daniel in his debt, and he agrees to visit the all-male choir, which doubles as group therapy. But it soon becomes clear that Sebastian’s bonhomie disguises an ulterior motive: He wants to dissuade Daniel from exhibiting photographs of his own village, the site of a massacre 15 years earlier. He hasn’t told his pregnant wife (a very fine Bolude Watson) that he once had another wife and family — all murdered — and fears what will happen if she finds out.
At least, that’s what he says. The untangling of each man’s past lets the pic explore ideas about trust and blinkered assumptions, and Lawrence proves himself a very able director of actors. Appearing on camera for the first time, Luri gives a detailed, hugely likeable performance that sparks convincingly off Watson, who imbues her wife-mother-house cleaner with great good humor as well as a steely indignation, especially in a bravura scene that sees her call out Josie’s unthinking rush to judge her husband.
The portrait of marriage the film presents, in which two intimates can share the same space but be miles apart, is echoed in its vision of Lawrence’s hometown, captured vividly by cinematographer Hugh Miller as a land of broad-leaved plenty expansive enough to contain two utterly different worlds. The interiors of each are designed by Carlo Crescini to underline the distance between them, the pokiness of Sebastian’s home contrasting starkly with the open-plan airiness of Daniel’s mod bolthole. One scene even sees Daniel tearing up Sebastian’s own carpet to show him the quality timber floorboards beneath.
With a sweat-stained shirt tucked into jeans and a bushy beard, Weaving makes the character more human than he sounds. There’s never been anything remotely rough about the actor, and his ramrod posture and neutral accent suit Daniel’s man-of-the-world hauteur.
Ghosthunter was a seven-year labor of love in which the filmmaker and his subject together unearthed the truth about the subject’s horrific past. Weaving’s photographer fulfills that function here, though the film is constructed less like a mystery; it’s more interested in what comes after the dots have been joined. David’s desire to go back on assignment despite serious medical problems is turbocharged by the breakdown of his relationship with Sebastian, but he makes one final, fortuitous intervention that salvages everything.
The film’s sunny conclusion is followed by a montage of real-life photographs documenting the refugee crisis. But the final image, of a dead child being hauled aboard by border officials, sits uneasily beside the scenes of utopian reconciliation that preceded it — the flinty capper to a film we hadn’t been watching.
Production companies: Caravan Pictures, Night Kitchen Productions
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson, Alan Dukes
Director: Ben Lawrence
Screenwriters: Beatrix Christian, Ben Lawrence
Producer: Matt Reeder
Cinematographer: Hugh Miller
Production designer: Carlo Crescini
Costume designer: Rita Carmody
Editor: Philip Horn
Music: Rafael May
Casting: Kirsty McGregor, Gemma Brown
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