Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Eye of the Storm: Schepisi Adapts the Great Australian Novel

Patrick White is Australia’s first and only Nobel Laureate for literature and this is the novel that cemented the prize for him in 1973.  It might seem like a logical but daunting work for an Australian filmmaker to tackle.  It turns out Fred Schepisi was the man to do it, along with screenwriter Judy Morris.  Death and family are equally inconvenient in the unusually tart and literate The Eye of the Storm (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Hunter family’s grand matriarch is dying, but Elizabeth is determined to go out on her own terms.  This requires the requisite homecoming of her somewhat estranged son and daughter, for a final opportunity to pass withering judgment on their life choices.  It is not a prospect either Basil or Dorothy relishes, but they could certainly use their share of Mother Dearest’s fortune.

Basil Hunter is not destitute.  An actor of more fame than talent, he is a local celebrity made good, but remains ragingly insecure.  The divorced Dorothy is actually an aristocrat by marriage, but she is definitely title-rich, cash-poor.  While Mrs. Hunter always professed greater disappointment in her son, it is the daughter who harbors the deeper grudge, for reasons that are revealed in a series of flashbacks.

As a concept, emotionally stunted siblings watching their overbearing mother precipitously decline mentally and physically might sound appallingly depressing, but Eye is surprisingly witty.  It is sort of like witnessing Noel Coward characters at a time of existential crisis.  While White’s stream-of-consciousy work is notoriously resistant to dramatic adaptation, Morris opens it up quite nicely.  Paul Grabowsky’s gently swinging score, featuring Branford Marsalis’s rich, silky soprano saxophone, also helps keep the mood from getting too maudlin.

Frankly, the core family drama works remarkably well.  It is universally relatable, yet distinctly and idiosyncratically dysfunctional.  The perfectly cast, once-in-a-lifetime trio of Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush, and Judy Davis makes Morris’s cutting dialogue sing and verbally dance.  Observing them play with and against each other is a true movie-going pleasure.  Unfortunately, the subplots involving Mrs. Hunter’s private nurses do not have the same verve.  In fact, the treatment of Nurse Lotte, a caricatured Holocaust survivor, borders on the exploitative.  However, there is something redemptively humane about John Gaden’s portrayal of family friend and solicitor, Arnold Wyburg.

Despite the occasional misstep, Eye is a classy literary package, considerably more cinematic than the average BBC television production it could find itself compared to.  Offering three great lead performances, an excellent supporting turn, and an appealing soundtrack, the film has much to offer, all of which are elegantly marshaled by Schepisi, a strangely under-appreciated director.  Recommended for discriminating adult audiences, The Eye of the Storm opens this Friday (9/7) in New York at the Cinema Village.