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Portmanteau films can be frustratingly hit-and-miss affairs, but the powerful source material and the packed stable of top-tier talent involved in The Turning have resulted in a masterful, exhilaratingly coherent collage of Australian life in the raw. Based on acclaimed Australian novelist Tim Winton’s best-selling collection of 17 interwoven short stories, this eloquent three-hour epic offers a bracing, sometimes deeply unsettling, arthouse experience as individual plot threads twist and twirl and ultimately come together to form a composite portrait of small-town lives that are pinched yet somehow poetic.
Producer Robert Connolly, who directed well-regarded Aussie films The Bank and Balibo, acts as curator, corralling 17 different directors, each with their own cast and crew, to interpret Winton’s tales. From established helmers such as Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City), Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) and Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel to first-time filmmakers Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham, each brings a particular vision.
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It’s an ambitious project, for which Connolly has devised an outside-the-square distribution plan. Following its triumphant premiere at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, the film will have a two-week domestic run of “event” screenings from Sept. 26, with intermission and an accompanying glossy program. Strong presales suggest Connolly has a winner on his hands.
The program will be helpful. Winton’s book unlocks a mood, featuring recurrent motifs of sand, surf and fire, and studding its harsh social realism with uplifting glimpses of something beyond. Within a tight geographical focus on a fictional coastal town in Western Australia, different story strands confront police corruption, soul-deadening abattoir jobs, alcoholism and young love and lust. Certain characters recur during different stages of their lives, but in the film version, each is played by a different actor — sometimes Aboriginal, sometimes not — depending on the story in which they appear. It would take repeated viewings or a thorough perusal of the program to tease apart the links — or you could just go with the flow.
An animated sequence by Marieka Walsh introduces the notion of lives changing direction, turning and turning again. Thornton’s evocative opener, Big World, pivots on the dreams of a young unnamed narrator who seeks to escape, with his best friend Biggie, from a dead-end job and a prosaic future. There is scarcely a misstep from here, although some segments are stronger than others.
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Standouts include McCarthy’s centerpiece contribution, The Turning, which features a stunning against-type performance from a tattooed and scrappy Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, I Give It a Year) as an abused trailer-park mom lured by the promise of a new-found friend’s Christian faith. Cockleshell, by Tony Ayres, and the gripping Aquifer, producer Connolly’s directorial contribution, both linger long. But it’s 23-year-old actor Wasikowska’s (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) directing debut that will have theatergoers buzzing. Her take on Long, Clear View, a short highlighting the personality quirks of a troubled young man, is sly and darkly comic, showing a preternaturally sure hand.
Hugo Weaving gives an affecting performance in Commission, but Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh struggle with the somewhat jarring tone of Reunion, written by Blanchett’s husband Andrew Upton and directed by theater’s rising star Simon Stone. He is one of a number of directors sourced from outside the world of film, alongside Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page and video artist Shaun Gladwell, whose Family stands out in a field of dazzlingly shot segments that make the most of striking backdrops, from craggy ranges and rolling swamplands to the haze of banksia scrub and moonlit white-sand beaches.
Voice-over narration, wordless dream-like segments, split screens and straight-up naturalism — even an otherworldly studio segment — are all linked by the air of mysticism, nostalgia and regret that permeates Winton’s literature. The cumulative effect is transporting.
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Production company: Arenamedia
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Susie Porter, Robyn Nevin, Dan Wyllie
Directors: Marieka Walsh, Warwick Thornton, Jub Clerc, Robert Connolly, Anthony Lucas, Rhys Graham, Ashlee Page, Tony Ayres, Claire McCarthy, Stephen Page, Shaun Gladwell, Mia Wasikowska, Simon Stone, David Wenham, Jonathan auf der Heide, Justin Kurzel, Yaron Lifschitz, Ian Meadows.
Producers: Robert Connolly, Maggie Miles
Executive producers: Andrew Myer, Paul Wiegard
Editor: Andy Canny
Sales: Level K
No rating, 180 minutes
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