Ash Wednesday, written, directed and animated by Marieka Walsh, narrated by Colin Friels
A beautiful sand animation starts this epic journey set to a voice-over narration of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, Ash Wednesday. Grains of sand, bigger pictures, short stories, free interpretation, distance and closeness; Tim Winton’s The Turning is a unique cinema experience that is neither a feature film nor a program of shorts.
Big World, written and directed by Warwick Thornton
In the book as well as the film, this story is the strangest – I only really appreciated it on a second viewing. Two schoolboys work in a meat factory and ignore even the faintest tug of futurism in their accepted humdrum lives. With little prospect and dreams as barren as the outback, they focus on moments. Hoping to experience something close to happiness, fleeting becomes something. Filmed almost exactly as it is laid out in words by Winton, director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, 2009) kick starts the film with the least imaginative short in the collection. At first I thought this was also uninspiring but on a second viewing I found the picture to be an apt reflection of its written counterpart. Told with an almost wry tongue-in-cheek, Thornton knows how boring these boys’ lives are, so boring that for a moment you could think the film is too. But it isn’t.
Abbreviation, written and directed by Jub Clerc
Two teenage kids meet at the beach; their romantic encounter painful and pleasurable at once. Despite its overbearing music and TV drama style acting, Abbreviation is actually one of the more interesting offerings. Despite the male character being Winton’s recurring redhead ‘Vic’ in the text, the two kids shown here are Indigenous. The story and the sentiment are unchanged. Director Jub Clerc, a playwright and stage performer in the world’s first Aboriginal Opera, Pecan Summer, astutely changes the context but not the story. She also captures an alternate view of the landscape. Unlike the seaside town the source material describes, Clerc’s snapshot of teenage lust is set against a stunning fiery red rock beach backdrop. Suddenly Winton’s white-trash vision of Australian identity opens up and admits that an encounter is just that, its details incidental.
Aquifer, written by Justin Monjo, directed by Rob Connolly
Producer and orchestrator of the overall project, Rob Connolly also directs a chapter: Aquifer. A well-made inquiry into a man’s past, sparked by a television news report, Aquifer gently weaves nostalgia and melancholy into the fabric of a middle-aged, middle-class man’s middling life.
Damaged Goods, written by Kris Mrksa, directed by Anthony Lucas
Anthony Lucas’s short films have been in competition from a number of impressive film institutions including Cannes, BAFTAs and the Academy Awards. Unfortunately Damaged Goods is a weak story that barely comes to life. Again suffering from essay style voiceover narration against a clumsy use of split screen to mirror the split perspectives, this story is as awkward as the teenage characters it chronicles.
Small Mercies, written and directed by Rhys Graham
A not especially important entry in the film, though certainly key in the written collection, Small Mercies is about lives that have forked. Meeting again so much farther down their respective paths, this story posits one person’s hardship against another’s: how can you act mercifully towards someone else when you have your own demons to fight? Well executed, albeit brief, as a film the story acts as a proverb, warning against the potential dangers of choosing to leave others behind.
On Her Knees, written and directed by Ashlee Page
Susie Porter shines in her brief appearance as Carol, a now single mother who cleans houses for a living after her husband shot through. Her son Vic ( Harrison Gilbertson) reluctantly helps her, angry at having to service the affluent. A direct example of what happens when you do choose a path that leaves others behind, On Her Knees is a further lesson on judgement based on circumstance rather than character.
Cockleshell, written by Marcel Dorney, directed by Tony Ayres
Returning to the question of perception raised in Damaged Goods, now informed by two important lessons on misunderstanding and misplaced judgement; Cockleshell explores aggrandised lust of the ‘girl next door’. Brakey (Marcel Dorney) follows his neighbour Agnes (Brenna Harding) on her nightly flathead spearing expeditions. Foolishly turning up without shoes, Brakey soon learns that he knows nothing about Agnes’s life, despite having observed her from a close distance. Standing on something sharp in the water, Brakey’s experience of walking ‘in someone else’s shoes’ is comically naïve as well as literally and figuratively painful. After attending to his wound, we see a close-up of his face while he masturbates in the shower. Again, with echoes of the encounter in Abbreviation, pleasure and pain seem to go hand in hand.
The Turning, written and directed by Claire McCarthy
If it were a novel and a feature film then this would be the climax. As a collection of short stories or as a curated program of short films, this becomes the pivotal chapter that connects everything, and it does so through the character of Rae (Rose Byrne). Rae represents everyone’s pain and suffering. She also represents their forgiveness and redemption. More enlightened here than in the book, the actual titled ‘turning’ is a spiritual awakening. Skeptics will find this chapter a little OTT but the sentiment is sincere, even if Byrne occasionally plays it for laughs.
Sand, written by Justin Monjo, directed by Stephen Page
After the realisation that redemption is possible the story behind Max’s sadistic treatment of Rae is explored in quick succession with Sand and Family. The first is the telling of two young boys who play in the sand dunes, innocent enough until older brother Max (Jarli-Russell Blanco) lets envy interfere. Almost killing Frank (Jakory Blanco) in a sort of ‘game’ in the sand dunes, Max never appears remorseful. Director Stephen Page’s background in dance and choreography is clear as he blends live action with performance to tell the story of the boys’ troubled relationship. The performance sequences are visually dark, lit with hues of deep blue against a black backdrop, nicely reflecting the sinister tones of the text.
Family, written by Emily Ballou, directed Shaun Gladwell
The same two brothers, now grown up, meet again, out amongst the torrid waves at sea. A conversation takes place before a brutal unleashing of repressed anger from years’ past. From director Shaun Gladwell, best known for his video installation work, Family is told through imagery rather than words. Narrative – though only just – Gladwell proves his technical craft is as diverse as it is accomplished.
Long, Clear View, written and directed by Mia Wasikowska
Having filled in some of the events that led to Rae’s domestic abuse, we return to the Lang family. From the wild seas to a quiet suburban home, we are plunged into Vic’s (Matthew Shanley) childhood. Immediately following his father’s departure, this is Vic’s view of the world, combining comedy and curiosity, uninterrupted by the perspectives or opinions of others. A directorial debut for renowned actress Mia Wasikowska, Long, Clear View is a well-executed exercise in cinematic control. Stagey with a touch of whimsy that is only a small step out of place in the tonal arch of the collection, Wasikowska proves she holds talents behind as well as in front of the camera.
Reunion, written by Andrew Upton, directed by Simon Stone
A second upbeat entry, this might be the only time we ever see Vic (Richard Roxburgh) at ease. He and his wife Gail (Cate Blanchett) along with his mother Carol (Robyn Nevin) mistakenly visit the wrong house on Christmas day. A directorial debut for Simon Stone who hails from a theatre background, Reunion is a bright, colourful entry and even a welcome respite from so much drama that has come before.
Commission, written and directed by David Wenham
Unfortunately, respite is as brief as it is welcome. Following Stone’s pit stop of laughter and good fun is the emotional home stretch. Forgiveness is never easy and here Vic (Josh McConville) travels hundreds of miles to a remote location where his alcoholic father has been living for the past fifteen years. Sober since he moved away, Bob (Hugo Weaving) is calm when Vic arrives. Carol is ill and Vic has come to bring Bob back to the city for a visit her before she dies, closing a door that was always left ajar. Perfectly imagined by David Wenham (Seachange, Oranges and Sunshine, 2010), Commission is almost the final word on the Lang family’s fractured lives.
Fog, written and directed by Jonathan auf der Heide
Not quite the final word however. Fog digs one step further into Bob’s past, giving a glimpse of his life as a policeman. Clearly out of his depth in the thick of the forest, searching for a missing hiker, Bob (Dean Daley-Jones) tries to conceal his alcoholism and cowardice in front of a young newspaper cadet by offering reassurances even he doesn’t believe. As night falls, despite the company of the young woman, Bob realises he must face his fears alone. Beautifully shot in the Stirling Ranges Winton describes, director Jonathan auf der Heide captures the bitter cold of Bob’s isolation with aplomb.
Boner McPharlin’s Moll, written and directed by Justin Kurzel
In the text this is the chapter that puts Bob’s fear into perspective, giving the reader some understanding of his alcoholism and inability to communicate with his wife Carol and son Vic. Barely even a mild disappointment in its exclusion of narrative information however, Boner McPharlin’s Moll is the most accomplished and polished work in the collection. A true stand out in style and affect, Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, 2011) bends the narrative in a startling and thoughtful way. With dirty engines revving and slow circular camera pans of people just ‘being’, Kurzel creates an impression of an absent character through hearsay alone. The style is so careful it’s unnerving and the abrasive aural interruptions create tension even without the events of the story. A remarkable piece of filmmaking even if it is at odds with the work as a whole, Kurzel’s understanding and reinterpretation of the text is nothing short of astonishing and can only be criticised for leaving the viewer wanting.
Immunity, written by Circa Contemporary Circus, directed by Yaron Lifschitz
A further narrative departure, Yaron Lifschitz’s contemporary dance sequence employs circus techniques to tell a story of nostalgia and regret. Almost entirely at odds with everything up until this point, Immunity is not so much an adapted chapter as it is an interpretation of the full story. Couples move about on screen with passion and great intensity that every feeling The Turning aspires to communicate as a whole is conveyed through a simple turn or an energised leap. A stunning inclusion, Immunity is a real highlight and an artistic achievement. Being faithful to a text doesn’t necessarily mean using that text as script; sometimes tonality and affect are enough to bring a source to life.
Defender, written and directed by Ian Meadows
The final chapter returns to Vic (Dan Wylie) and Gail (Kate Mulvaney). Much like his father, too much external pressure leaves Vic in internal quandary. Externalising malaise Gail is distanced and infuriated at his impenetrable shell. The couple visit some friends, anxieties heightened by the presence of others, leading to home truths. It is the final chapter but it doesn’t offer any grand conclusions. Still turning, our characters have not reached a higher plane of understanding, they cannot rid themselves of every cross they bear. The final threshold then is the realisation that moments, encounters, disparate lives, the roaring palimpsest of emotions and experiences are what make a whole.
Written by Tara Judah.