In the novel everyone wants something - love, money, acceptance, opportunity - they all dispise each other and themselves for that want. Which at times makes it grimly funny. In a ghastly, wow, aren't people just horrible kind of way. Morris captures all of it on film. And much more efficiently than White but then that's film. In this case the time constraints work in the story's favor. The story of an aging Australian woman, Elizabeth Hunter * (Charlotte Rampling) whose two grown expat kids (Geoffrey Rush as Basil and Judy Davis as Princess Dorothy de Lascabanes) come home to ensure their share of her fortune, isn't just about this horrid little family drama at its core. There are plenty of power plays, barely-hidden resentments, jealousies and secrets to fill an entire season of a television soap opera ala As The World Turns, Days of My Life or perhaps most aptly, All My Children. Especially when you add in the caretakers, family lawyer and socialite 'friends' of the daughter Princess Dorothy, and actor colleagues of the son.
This is Fred Schepisi's first film in five or six years but the award winning Australian director's imdb.com listed film credits include Roxeanne, Six Degrees of Separation, Empire Falls and A Cry in the Dark so it's clear he knows what he's doing. Except for some odd casting in the case of Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling. Rush is too old to play Rampling's son or Rampling is too young to play the novel's 86 year old mother. In reality Rampling is in her late 60's, Rush is just a few years behind her in his early 60's, so it's a bit offputting.
Judy Davis, born in 1951, is just a few years behind them but for some reason that's not as jarring. Perhaps the two actresses are not that far apart in age because the story sets mother and daughter up as rivals with the older woman being known for her outstanding beauty - and the feeling of entitlement that seems to go with extraordinary good looks. Not a lot of older (70 plus) women who can compete with even the average 50 year old on a purely physical plane. Despite that bit of awkwardness, there's so much awkwardness already between these people, who happen to be family that it just adds a layer of tension.
Of course all three of these actors are incredibly gifted. I had no idea they were all Australians. Well I knew Judy Davis was but not Rush. What is it about the country that gives us so many talented actors? Judy Davis and her unsmiling, foot-swinging, lip-nibbling nervous energy. Geoffrey Rush, spot on as the always-on, lecherous Shakespearian actor. And Rampling, who we first saw in Georgy Girl in the 60's and who has worked, worked, worked since and who has been involved in another eight - 8! - projects since filming The Eye of the Storm is as masterful as her character is manipulative. It's not her fault she doesn't look quite old enough.
Schepisi in his casting, has also shaved quite a few years off Edward (pronounced EdVar and played by Martin Lynes)- the man at the heart of Dorothy's resentment toward her mother. In the filmmaker's version with this younger Edward, it's easier than in the book, to see how he animalistically accepts what he's given; Edward as a prize that Elizabeth wins over her daughter is tawdry and shabby. I felt disappointed that Dorothy put so much stock in it or her mother's betrayal.
One casting decision was a clear winner and that's Schepisi's selection of his daughter, Alexandra Schepisi for the role of Flora (Floradora) Manhood. She was terrific as the clean and cheeky looking young woman with a foolish grasping urge. I'm not familiar with her work but like all these Australian actors, she brings a gritty realism to the role. Helen Morse was also striking as Lotte, the cook and Holocaust survivor who is perhaps the only living being to give Elizabeth true pleasure. She is certainly one of the few who truly love her. John Gadden - another new to me face but an old hand in Australian tv and film I suspect - struck just the right chord as the honorable family attorney.
The movie was simply beautiful to look at thanks to cinematography by Ian Baker who has worked extensively with Schepisi along with the muted palette of production designer Melinda Doring. My only quibble with the latter is that the house should have looked a bit shabbier in keeping with the decaying life of the family and household.
Not a perfect movie but I wasn't bored for an instant and I credit it for being an honest respectful and mostly successful effort. If I was giving it stars or hearts or chocolate chip cookies - which is not something I do - I'd give it three.
* The absolute rightness of Elizabeth Hunter's name has only now just struck me. She is both Elizabeth the queen who rules absolutely and the predator who knows only the fittest survive.
I'm highlighting the trailer on my Featured Trailer page or you can watch it here. The film is out in select theatres in the US and available on Amazon Instant Video now. Unless you have a really big screen try and see it in the theatre; it won't be at the multiplex but if you have a movie house that plays those little indie gems they should be screening it.