Tuesday, July 18, 2006

LITTLE FISH - award-winning Aussie drama

LITTLE FISH is not a film for the attention-deficit-disorder generation. While the characters include drug-dealers and junkies and the plot involves scoring and deals turned bad, this is most definitely not a conventional crime thriller or gangster flick. Rather, LITTLE FISH is a slow-burning, intense study of six characters and their interactions with each other. It unfolds at a deliberately slow pace, allowing us to get to know the characters – their flaws and their strange nobility. This is especially the case with the Heart family (surely no coincidence in the choice of family name?) The lynchpin of the piece is Janelle Heart (Noni Hazelhurst) – a decent woman who is fiercely protective of her two grown children. Her daughter, Tracey (Cate Blanchett) is a former junkie who is struggling to get a business loan because of her “colourful” past. Tracey comes across as an essentially decent person with a lot of integrity – hard-working, loyal, straight-talking. She nurses her friend Lionel through cold-turkey countless times, and will not abandon him even in the most extreme of situations. Seeing her fall through computerised credit checks – unable to restart her life – is a painful viewing experience. Her brother Ray, (Martin Henderson) is also an ex-junkie who lost his leg in a car accident caused by Jonny. Faced with the same obstacles as Tracey he responds with acerbic wit, but doesn’t even try for a straight life – opting instead for the fringes of high-level criminality. Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) is Tracey’s ex-boyfriend and another ex-junkie, who got shipped off to Vancouver by his Vietnamese family after the accident, and has returned in a slick suit. The whole corrupt mess is presided over by Brad (Sam Neill) – a sleazy old criminal with a high maintenance vulgar wife and a gay lover that he has hooked on heroin. That lover is Lionel, an ex-Aussie Rules footballer (Hugo Weaving) who also befriended the Heart family and got Tracey hooked on smack. Dumped by Brad and denied free smack, he is reduced to selling off his old sports memorabilia to finance his habit.

Director Rowan Woods has crafted a film of rare subtlety and intelligence. Unlike conventional Hollywood films, the audience is left to infer the exact nature of the relationships between the characters. Key plot points unfold before us without being flagged up by the writers in a patronising manner. Woods has also coaxed performances that are against all expectations, notably from Hugo Weaving (who deserves an Oscar) and Martin Henderson. Henderson in particular is unrecognisable from his plastic performance in Gurinder Chadha’s romantic-comedy BRIDE AND PREJUDICE. It just goes to show how important good writing and direction is for any actor. Having said all this, I found the pacing a little too sluggish at times, and the final scene teetered into sentimentality. However, in a season of ever-more ridiculous block-busters, LITTLE FISH is something to be thankful for.

LITTLE FISH was released in Australia and New Zealand in 2005, and the USA earlier this year. It is available on Region 1 DVD. It opens in the UK on Friday.

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