Thursday, March 15, 2007

JINDABYNE - confused Aussie drama

The best thing about the opening night of the London Australian Film Festival was a wickedly funny short film with a warm centre called BOOTH STORY. By contrast, the main feature, JINDABYNE, was disappointing at best. Ray Lawrence (LANTANA) fashions a confused two-hour movie from Raymond Carver's short story, 'So much water so close to home' - a story that also inspired part of Altman's SHORT CUTS.

In a nutshell, four men go on a fishing trip outside the Australian town of Jindabyne. They find the corpse of a young girl in a stream. Instead of reporting their find straight away, they continue with their holiday and go the police two days later. The film pretends to explore the ramifications of this decision.

But JINDABYNE never explains why the men didn't report the body. Fair enough. Sometimes there is no rational explanation. But it does not sufficiently unpick the dynamic between the men. There is a sinister scene where one of them - an ageing car mechanic called Stewart Kane, played by Gabriel Byrne - returns to the body, but the director brings this up only to let it hang there. This is one of many threads that are picked up but not seen through.

The pyschological drama rests with the wives that the men return to. In particular, with Stewart Kane's wife, Claire, played by Laura Linney. Her character is interesting. She is obviously intelligent and has suffered from severe post-natal depression. As a result, both her husband and mother-in-law undermine her authority. But her earnest good intentions and status as victim are finely balanced by her self-involvement, self-righteousness and disregard for other's privacy. As she goes stumbling through the town, trying to provoke an apology from her husband and forgiveness from the girl's family, I couldn't help but wonder whether the director and writer were making a ham-fisted point about American liberal angst. Or maybe, it's just that Laura Linney's performance is not sufficiently well-modulated to give a more subtle reading of the text?

The film-makers stray beyond the bounds of a relationship drama and make occasional passes at an exploration of Australian racial politics. The dead girl was an aborigine and pretty soon some of her family have daubed the words "white race crime" onto Stewart's petrol station. Sadly, the film-makers do not take this as a cue for a more interesting analysis of the issue. Rather, they implicitly adopt the attitude that, by their casual indifference, the anglers are on a par with evil white colonials. Surely there is no other interpretation of the movie given the soupy melodrama of the final scenes of the movie?

These scenes offer a resolution that seems as invasive and crass as Claire's seeing the body in the morgue. It wants to offer the characters and viewers a closure that stands at odds with the prevailing moral tone of the film. And the artistic choice to have a young girl choking back tears as she sings a love-song memorial is pure Hollywood sugar-coated emotional manipulation.

So, as far as plot, character development and artistic choices with the material go, I was deeply disappointed with JINDABYNE. In addition, the production features a couple of jarring mistakes. Not least, even after Stewart Krane has died his hair raven black, there is footage of him on a fishing trip with the old grey hair, before he returns to the car with black hair again. Amateurish.

Is there anything, then, to recommend this film? I found Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney's lead performances rather thin, although it's not clear whether this is their fault or that of the writers and directors. However, the film does feature some splendid performances from the supporting cast - not least Sean-Rees Wemyss and Eva Lazarro as the two children, Tom and Caylin-Calandria. DP David Williamson also takes some spectacular shots of the surrounding country-side.

JINDABYNE played Cannes and Toronto 2006 and opened in Australia in 2006. It played Dublin 2007 and opened the London Australian Film Festival tonight. It opened in Norway and Sweden earlier this yera and opens in the US on April 27th and in the UK on May 25th.

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