AFTER paying his dues in children’s television as a teenage surfer in Blue Water High , Khan Chittenden is emerging as one of our more interesting movie actors. He has already been seen in the feature film The Caterpillar Wish , in which he plays the troubled heroine’s schoolboy lover, and he will soon be seen as a denizen of Sydney’s western suburbs in West .
But his best part to date is in Clubland, a movie that sets out with a kind of dogged determination to please audiences. And why not, when so many Australian films these days, good or bad, are hardly audience- friendly.
Chittenden plays Tim Dwight, a pleasant, rather withdrawn and shy young man who is dominated by the women in his life, but mainly by his awful mother, Jean ( Brenda Blethyn).
Tim and his disabled brother, Mark, live with Jean somewhere in Sydney’s west. He’s determined to establish himself in the moving business and is paying off a van. But Jean seems determined to curtail his freedom.
Jean is a disappointed woman. She used to be Somebody ( to quote Marlon Brando); in her native England she was a popular comedian, presumably in the Hattie Jacques league. Framed photographs on her mantelpiece indicate that she once hobnobbed with the best of them: Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill.
But she fell in love with John, an Australian singer ( played with considerable charm by Frankie J. Holden), married him and gave up her career to follow him to Sydney. John was a onehit wonder and Jean was unable to sustain her career, apart from the occasional club booking for her excruciatingly bad comedy routine. The couple divorced. John is now a supermarket security guard and, with her sons grown up, Jean wants to make a comeback.
Keith Thompson’s screenplay and Cherie Nowlan’s direction are fine on details such as these. The characters inhabit a well described, thoroughly convincing environment, which is essential if we’re to believe in them and even come to embrace them, which is what the film wants us to do.
Casting Blethyn as Jean was adroit as well as risky. She has been known to give exaggerated portrayals in the past of women similar to Jean Dwight: her perpetual screeching in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies was very hard to take. For a while it seems she’ll overplay Jean as well, turning this frustrated woman into an overbearing monster.
Thankfully, she has some effective, quieter moments and, by the end, you almost care about her while at the same time sympathising with her long- suffering son.
Alongside the story of Jean’s showbusiness comeback is the story of Tim’s first real love affair. Her name is Jill, played by talented newcomer Emma Booth. Tim meets Jill and her flatmate Kelly ( Katie Wall) when he moves their furniture to a new house. They’re flirtatious, outspoken girls, far more aggressive sexually than he is.
Somehow, a relationship with Jill begins and it blossoms into love. Their love scenes are frank and intimate and, thanks to the lovely performances of the young actors, they come across as truthful and touching.
The texture of the film is quite rich and all the characters, even peripheral ones, are sharply etched. The combination of feel- good comedy and tear- jerking drama is well managed, if a touch calculated, and most of the cast are very good indeed, with Holden making the most of his small role as Tim’s failure of a father.
The one weak spot is the character of the brother, Mark, an oddly conceived role that presents actor Richard Wilson with a challenge he’s not easily able to surmount. Apart from this, Clubland is something of a charmer and certainly one of the better Australian films around at the moment.
* * * LIKE Jean Dwight, Miss Kruger ( Monica Bleibtreu) in the German film Four Minutes is a perfectionist determined to get her own way in all things. This formidable old woman, now in her 80s, has been working at a women’s prison in a German city since the Nazi era.
These days she teaches classical piano to inmates who really aren’t very interested in the kind of music Kruger insists on, so when she encounters the obviously gifted Jenny ( Hannah Herzsprung), her senses quicken.
Jenny is in prison for murder: she dismembered a man and has an extremely violent disposition. In an early scene, she brutally attacks and injures a sympathetic guard. Yet she plays the piano like a virtuoso, even though she prefers what Kruger calls ‘‘ Negro music’’ to the classics her irascible teacher insists on.
Chris Kraus’s film concentrates on the relationship between these two women and though the subject matter is grim, especially in the early scenes, the quality of the performances and the rigour of the filmmaking prevail.
Herzsprung, who played the piano herself in every scene, including those in which her hands are bound behind her back, gives a vibrant, intense and painfully real performance as a young woman who faces a lifetime behind bars.
Trapped: Khan Chittenden, centre, plays a young man dominated by his girlfriend ( Emma Booth) and mother ( Brenda Blethyn) in suburban tale Clubland