The Eye of the Storm: Film Review

A classy, grown-up drama that explores the emotional wreckage of a dysfunctional family with caustic wit

Superb performances by Judy Davis, Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling anchor the caustic social observations and dark yet incandescent wit in Fred Schepisi's adaptation of Australian Nobel laureate Patrick White’s acclaimed novel.

SYDNEY — Prodigal son Fred Schepisi corrals a collection of top-shelf talent for The Eye of the Storm, an intelligent, visually sumptuous drama that embraces the grandeur of the Australian literary classic upon which it’s based.

Stately as the magnificent Sydney mansion in which Charlotte Rampling’s aging socialite lies theatrically dying while her spoiled children (Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) pick over their inheritance, Schepisi’s first local feature since 1988’s Evil Angels(known as A Cry in the Darkin other territories) largely manages to transcend its disagreeable subject matter.

It’s a tricky proposition at times. But superb performances by the central trio anchor the caustic social observations and dark yet incandescent wit of Nobel laureate Patrick White’s acclaimed 1973 novel.

Older audiences who appreciate genteel yet intensely dramatic storytelling will find much to applaud, although it’s difficult to see its appeal broadening beyond that demographic. The Eye of the Storm, which had its world premiere in Australian Showcase at the Melbourne International Film Festival, will open domestically September 15.

All the money in the world can’t buy you a happy childhood, and the petulant, domineering Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling) ensured her two children had a particularly loveless upbringing.

Now they’ve come home and Basil (Rush), an expatriate stage actor with a knighthood and a narcissistic bent, and his awkward, bird-like sister, Dorothy (Davis), whose failed marriage into the French nobility has left her with the title Princess de Lascabanes, still bear the scars.

On her deathbed, Elizabeth remains a destructive force, tormenting her cash-strapped offspring by continuing to live extravagantly and handing out jewels and prized possessions to the nurses and attentive household staff who orbit her fading star.

Patrick White’s novel, the first of his to be adapted for the screen, underwent shifts in time and perspective as it explored the life of this feared and revered woman through her various relationships. The screenplay, by Judy Morris (Happy Feet, Babe: Pig in the City), brings the two adult children into sharper focus, while maintaining the intricate dance between past and present, aided by Schepisi’s interplay of light and shadow as Elizabeth drifts in and out of lucidity. Morris does a fine job preserving the cadences of White’s sharp-edged dialogue.

Less successful is the translation to the screen of the spiritual epiphany Elizabeth once experienced during a violent tropical storm on a Queensland island. This seems central to the layering of Elizabeth’s character and feeds into the complex stumble towards redemption experienced by this dysfunctional family. But the film wobbles a bit in conveying its impact.

It’s a flaw easily overlooked when you’ve got national treasure Davis in one of her finest, most affecting performances, Rush deftly weighing aging playboy against damaged little boy and a gimlet-eyed Rampling, entrancing still beneath wigs and ageing makeup.

Even the minor roles are solidly filled by a terrific Australian cast, which includes Robyn Nevin, Colin Friels and Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock), almost unrecognizable as Elizabeth’s housekeeper Lotte, a Holocaust survivor who desperately strives to entertain her incapacitated employer with extravagant performances of Weimar cabaret. 

Schepisi’s daughter, Alexandra, holds her own as an attractive young nurse named Flora, one of a handful of characters who ultimately reflect the Hunter family’s bourgeois silliness back at them.

Melinda Doring’s production design evokes a world of chauffeured Bentleys and kangaroo-fur stoles inhabited by a wannabe colonial aristocracy, while Ian Baker’s rich cinematography lends a lustrous sheen. Paul Grabowsky’s score is just what the doctor ordered.

Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Production company: Paper Bark Films
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, Charlotte Rampling, Robyn Nevin, Colin Friels, Helen Morse, Alexander Schepisi
Director: Fred Schepisi
Screenwriter: Judy Morris
Based on the book by: Patrick White
Producers: Antony Waddington, Gregory Read
Executive producers: Jonathan Shteinman, Edward Simpson
Director of photography: Ian Baker
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Costume designer: Terry Ryan
Music: Paul Grabowsky
Editor: Kate Williams
Sales: The Little Film Company        
No rating, 114 minutes