Operation croc and awe
Rogue ( M) National release Conversations with My Gardener ( M) Limited national release
WE know quite early in that things aren’t looking good for the hero. Pete McKell is an American travel writer on a visit to the Northern Territory, who discovers his airline has mislaid his baggage and with it his laptop computer. Oh no. At least he has his mobile phone: but soon that, too, is out of action. So no mobile, no satellite navigation, no iPod, no laptop, no nothing. In today’s world of instant communication there could be no more powerful suggestion of isolation and vulnerability. This is a horror film for the electronic generation.
The writer- director, Greg Mclean, made the supremely chilling Wolf Creek a couple of years ago, and in Rogue he has found another predatory killer in the wilds of the territory. This time it’s a crocodile, whom I’ll call Betty. Betty does what all angry, frightened crocs tend to do when disturbed in their native habitat. She takes it out on the intruders, with little regard for the sanctity of human life. And I can’t say I altogether blame her. So without wishing to appear either callous or sentimental, Rogue lacks for me one of the essential elements of good horror films: the presence of innocent victims pitted against the workings of a capricious fate. It lacks something else: the sense of human malevolence. Mclean works hard to suggest that Betty has well- developed instincts for revenge and calculation ( they study our habits), but she’s a croc after all, and I always find animals less frightening than people. It’s why I was never really scared by Jaws , and may never quite shake off the memory of John Jarratt’s jovial Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek , a combination of Ivan Milat, Bradley John Murdoch and every other notorious killer- kidnapper who comes to mind. Jarratt has a smaller, more subdued role in Rogue as a grieving widower, and Mclean keeps him hidden behind a large moustache.
Given that Jarratt is now typecast as a psychopathic murderer and torturer of women, one could hardly have cast him as the intrepid rescuer and action hero. This role is filled ( more or less) by American Michael Vartan, as McKell. In a film aimed at international audiences, it was probably no bad idea to have an American hero, though top billing goes to our own Radha Mitchell as Kate Ryan, the tour guide who finds herself stranded with a boatload of passengers on a tiny island that Betty considers her exclusive territory.
Yes, there are real characters here. We get a few sketchy personalities among the cast of assorted tourists, adventurers and local hoons. But their main purpose is to be picked off at odd intervals by the central character, whose appetite is, of course, insatiable. The challenge for the audience is to decide which member of the cast ( human, reptilian or canine) will be the next to go. Mclean has modestly described Rogue as the Aussie Jaws , but it could just as easily be the Aussie Alien or an Aussie Deliverance . It’s about people meeting death on strange, forbidding territory, far from the protective influence of civilisation.
Rogue isn’t as frightening as Wolf Creek , or as gruesome ( though it was made with a budget roughly 20 times bigger). Mitchell makes a plucky, fresh- faced Kate, and I think it’s the first time I’ve heard her speak in her native accent after seeing her in Finding Neverland and Melinda and Melinda . Sam Worthington is excellent in a small part, and may have made a more robust hero than the subdued and rather tentative Vartan. The rugged landscapes have been beautifully caught ( the cinematographer, Will Gibson, also worked on Wolf Creek ), and there are interesting hints in Mclean’s screenplay of Aussie- American tensions and rivalries that might have been developed more pointedly. Within its safe and unambitious limits, Rogue works nicely. I RECOMMEND
a modest and wonderfully touching film
* * * from France, directed by Jean Becker. With a title like that you would probably guess it was French, a reminder of Eric Rohmer’s delicate conversation pieces, or moral tales, and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre , another great study of friendship, which consisted almost entirely of a conversation between two Frenchmen in a restaurant.
The source of Becker’s film is a novel by Henri Cueco, about an artist ( Daniel Auteuil) who returns to his childhood home in rural France and hires a gardener ( Jean- Pierre Darroussin) to look after the grounds.
In essence it’s a love story, one without homoerotic complications. The men seem at first quite different. The painter ( I don’t think we ever hear his name) seems to be doing rather well for himself, though his wife is fed up and his domestic life is a bit of a mess. He’s impulsive and temperamental and has a talent for offending people. The gardener ( also nameless) is a retired railway worker, a down- to- earth fellow of simple tastes and uncomplicated goodness.
The gardener is also a homespun philosopher, not the kind who talks in aphorisms or speculates on the nature of reality, but a man who approaches life with cheerful resignation, guided by untutored wisdom rather than native intelligence. I think filmmakers see gardening as others see fishing: evidence of a contemplative inner life blessed with deeper insights. Peter Sellers’s gardener in Being There was hailed as a sage, and I read in Clive James’s hefty new book that Ludwig Wittgenstein worked as a gardener after World War I. In Conversations with My Gardener , the gardener turns out to be a fisherman as well, which in any other film would make him too good to be true.
The pair become friends. The gardener discovers a wider world than he has known, and the painter becomes a warmer and kinder man. All this is conveyed very subtly; there are no dawning revelations or dramatic spiritual conversions. And Becker gives us flashbacks and cutaway scenes to enrich the film’s texture and enliven the pace, including a telling sequence at an art show and encounters with wives and girlfriends. The performances — beautifully judged and understated — constantly reveal new layers of personality. And it is extraordinary how our impressions of the men change as we get to know them better.
With all the gardener’s aches and pains, it is not difficult to guess the ending. But even when we are prepared for the worst, the final scenes are deeply affecting and strike with unexpected force. It is by no means a flawless film — the simplest films rarely are — but it is good to see one that celebrates human goodness and simple decency, and somehow avoids being preachy or sanctimonious.
Night on the reptiles: Radha Mitchell remembers the value of never smiling at a crocodile in Greg Mclean’s Rogue