'Ellipsis': Film Review | Sydney 2017

Slight but delicately handled.

Australian actor David Wenham makes his directorial debut with an improvised two-hander shot on the streets of Sydney.

Conceived as an experiment after a more conventional directing project fell over, Ellipsis marks the feature debut of Australian actor turned filmmaker David Wenham (Lion). Shot in Sydney over 11 days and heavily improvised by its two leads, Emily Barclay (The Light Between Oceans) and Benedict Samuel (The Walk), the result is modest and amiable, unfolding over the course of one day and night; it's a kind of Antipodean version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. Wenham earlier directed a segment of The Turning, the 2013 Tim Winton anthology that saw a constellation of Aussie stars debut behind the lens, and he demonstrates a deft hand here, keeping the wispiest of narratives afloat with a low-key portrait of budding romance that's awake to the excitement of first encounters.

Strolling through the city with his head buried in his phone, Jasper (Samuel) collides with Viv (Barclay) and sends her phone clattering to the bitumen. He offers to pay for her cracked screen, and they reconvene to a mobile repair shop run by a Chinese-Australian man (veteran local actor Ferdinand Hoang) with whom Viv is more than a little terse. Due to catch a plane back to London the next morning, she needs the phone fixed overnight. Jasper offers her the use of his own, and then his company — he's about to head to Sydney's annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, on the cliffs overlooking Bondi Beach. Viv is thrown by the offer but gets on a bus with him anyway, and what might have been the promising start to a horror film instead becomes an unhurried meditation on identity, transience and the comfort of strangers.

Wenham's first feature is striking most notably for its evocation of the city he calls home, and particularly of its rapidly disappearing red-light district, Kings Cross. Viv and Jasper turn up to Bondi to find the outdoor exhibition being bumped out by a laconic type in Hi-Vis, who gleefully ticks off the number of sculptures they've missed. Like many of the bit players in Ellipsis, the man's reactions seem unfaked because they are, with Wenham, his actors and DP-camera operator Simon Morris (Deep Water) incorporating anybody they stumbled upon during the shoot. Shooting handheld for much of the film, Morris has also captured a series of striking topographic shots of the city that Wenham and editor Nick Meyers (Sleeping Beauty) cut to periodically, like a series of breaths that break up all the talk.

Viv and Jasper visit the grave of Australian poet Henry Lawson and find a runaway dog that almost steals the entire film. They return the oversized mutt to his owner, a restaurateur who treats the good Samaritans to a free dinner and a bottle of red. Liquored-up and increasingly comfortable in one another's company, they embark on an odyssey through the Sydney night, bumping into a series of colorful characters while playing games of word association and beginning to tease out one another's histories. Sharing screenwriting credit with Gabrielle Wendelin, the director and his two leads thread a picture of Viv and Jasper's respective pasts, both flecked by trauma, that becomes visible only incrementally (and with some revelations delivered with more subtlety than others). 

Wenham also slides sideways to the home of the unnamed mobile repairman living in a high-rise apartment with his daughter, elderly mother and wife. Given less than a dozen lines, Hoang makes for a quietly compelling presence, and the brief snapshots of his home life rep some of the film's most vivid passages. Viv finds her identity up for grabs when cut off from what has become an extension of it — her smart phone — and the care with which we see it put back together feels almost like an embrace.

These passages, wordless for the most part, make for a nice respite from all the chitchat between Jasper and Viv and those they meet. These include the memorable proprietors of a Golden Mile sex shop, whose brilliantly sustained sales pitch involves more than a few product demonstrations. Samuel and Barclay play along like pros, and their building mutual affection feels convincingly graded every step of the way. With an accent that sounds almost English and courtly to a fault, Samuel in particular never comes off as affected, and it's to Wenham's credit that he staves off excessive tweeness all the way to the final scene, in which the film's title is bolded.

Sales: LevelK

Production company: Arenamedia

Cast: Emily Barclay, Benedict Samuel, Ferdinand Hoang

Director: David Wenham

Screenwriters: Gabrielle Wendelin, David Wenham, Emily Barclay, Benedict Samuel

Producers: David Wenham, Liz Kearney

Director of photography: Simon Morris

Sound recordist: Nick Emond

Editor: Nick Meyers

Composer: Megan Washington

Casting: Jane Norris

85 minutes