The brother of all con­flicts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

FILM­MAK­ERS are fond of dis­abil­ity, with its se­duc­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties for easy emo­tion and vir­tu­oso per­for­mances, and there have been many ways of treat­ing it. In Hol­ly­wood it has been played for laughs ( Stuck on You ) and feel- good histri­on­ics ( I am Sam, that dis­grace­fully mawk­ish film with Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeif­fer).

Aus­tralian film­mak­ers have tended to get the bal­ance right, that dif­fi­cult mix of di­rect­ness and hu­man­ity. Jerzy Do­maradzki’s Struck by Light­ning — about peo­ple with Down syn­drome — is among the most mov­ing ( and least re­mem­bered) of fine Aus­tralian films, and I have trea­sured mem­o­ries of Step­ping Out , Chris Noo­nan’s mag­nif­i­cent doc­u­men­tary made in the days be­fore Babe.

What’s needed is some­thing more than hu­mane in­ten­tions. The best films re­quire can­dour, hon­esty, an ab­sence of self- con­scious pos­tur­ing and the pre­cious abil­ity to tell a good story. If there is a bet­ter film about in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity than The Black Bal­loon I’d like to hear about it. It won prizes for its young di­rec­tor, Elissa Down, at the Ber­lin film fes­ti­val this year and its back­ers have high hopes for the lo­cal mar­ket. It’s cer­tainly no facile crowd- pleaser ( the sub­ject mat­ter may be too for­bid­ding), but the story is beau­ti­fully han­dled, the act­ing quite ex­cep­tional, and few Aus­tralian films have moved me more deeply.

We are in the heart­land of sub­ur­bia, a land­scape ob­served with­out mal­ice or con­de­scen­sion. Ev­ery­thing about this street, this house and the put- upon Mol­li­son fam­ily rings true. We can feel the sum­mer heat, the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of back­yard games. Thomas ( Rhys Wake­field) is turn­ing 16 and mov­ing into a new home and school. Mum ( Toni Col­lette) is preg­nant and stressed. Dad ( Erik Thom­son), an army man, is an ec­cen­tric bully, at least at first. He talks to a teddy bear in his bed­room and rules with a stern, half- des­per­ate author­ity. Then there’s Thomas’s brother Char­lie ( Luke Ford), who is se­verely autis­tic: noisy, un­pre­dictable, of­ten un­man­age­able, un­will­ing or un­able to speak.

At first I thought Char­lie’s con­di­tion was ex­ag­ger­ated for dra­matic ef­fect. Surely autism was char­ac­terised by shy­ness and self- ab­sorp­tion, a fail­ure of emo­tional en­gage­ment, not this cease­less grunt­ing and chortling, th­ese vi­o­lent and some­times dis­gust­ing tantrums? But I am as­sured cases such as Char­lie’s are by no means rare. Per­haps the film would have been more del­i­cate and mys­te­ri­ous if Char­lie’s autism were less se­vere, but noth­ing should de­tract from the courage and skill of Ford’s per­for­mance, with its depths of pity and un­der­stand­ing.

The mirac­u­lous core of the film is Wake­field’s Thomas. The Black Bal­loon is not so much about Char­lie as those whose lives are altered and tested by his pres­ence. This is the best por­trayal I have seen of a trou­bled teenaged boy: un­cer­tain, in­se­cure, hun­gry for com­pan­ion­ship and peer- group ap­proval, burst­ing with hor­monal drives, yet es­sen­tially lov­ing and gen­tle. What do you do when you want to im­press your girl­friend, the beau­ti­ful Jackie ( model Gemma Ward)? Jackie is Thomas’s new class­mate and fel­low trainee life­saver at the swim­ming pool, and they’ve fallen for each other. What do you do when your brother be­haves ob­scenely, in­vades Jackie’s home, cre­ates a scene at the su­per­mar­ket and ru­ins your birth­day party, at which Jackie is the guest of hon­our? Sulk, apol­o­gise, pre­tend that noth­ing is wrong, or turn on your brother in a fit of pent- up rage?

Wake­field gives a per­for­mance of as­ton­ish­ing con­fi­dence and ma­tu­rity. Thomas doesn’t hate his brother; if any­thing he hates him­self. Ha­tred is an easy emo­tion to con­vey. More dif­fi­cult is this boil­ing com­bi­na­tion of shame, help­less­ness and ex­as­per­a­tion, and if there’s a mo­ment that sums up all of Thomas’s in­ner con­flicts it’s when we see him nurs­ing his baby sis­ter while Char­lie’s head wounds are be­ing stitched by a doc­tor in the ad­join­ing room. This is a film suf­fused with love: mo­ments of do­mes­tic ten­der­ness and in­ti­macy, Thomas’s love for Jackie. Teenage love is a state of mind so fraught with sop­pi­ness and pseu­dolyri­cism that film­mak­ers have been wise to steer clear of it. Not here. The film takes risks and the risks are re­warded. The Black Bal­loon ra­di­ates hu­man­ity and truth, a tri­umph for all con­cerned.

* * * HOW long should a stu­dio wait be­fore re­mak­ing a clas­sic who­dunit, con­fi­dent that new au­di­ences will know noth­ing of the plot? A safe bet might be 36 years. Ken­neth Branagh’s Sleuth is an ex­cel­lent re­work­ing of An­thony Shaf­fer’s play, first filmed in 1972 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz with Lau­rence Olivier and Michael Caine.

I sup­pose it’s not so much a who­dunit as a who- done- what- to- whom- and- why. It’s a de­light­fully de­vi­ous and in­ge­nious en­ter­tain­ment, ar­ti­fi­cial and con­trived, but by no means de­void of gen­uine emo­tion.

Sleuth ’ s his­tory is as full of twists as the story. Caine, who played the younger char­ac­ter, Milo Tin­dle, in the first film, ap­pears this time as Andrew Wyke, the suc­cess­ful crime nov­el­ist pre­vi­ously played by Olivier. I think Caine makes a bet­ter fist of the part. Olivier no­to­ri­ously fluffed his lines — re­quir­ing as many as 20 or 30 takes for some shots — and in­fu­ri­ated Caine by sub­tly up­stag­ing him at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. This time the younger man is played ( beau­ti­fully) by Jude Law ( who gave us an­other fa­mous Caine char­ac­ter in the 2004 re­make of Al­fie). In the old Sleuth , the end cred­its in­cluded Wyke’s wife, Mag­gie, who was never seen, and the ac­tor play­ing her was given as Margo Chan­ning, the name of the Bette Davis char­ac­ter in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve.

All of which makes Sleuth some­thing of a film buff’s cu­rios­ity. But it still works won­der­fully. The set­ting, Wyke’s coun­try house, is now a marvel of min­i­mal­ist in­te­rior de­sign and the latest hi- tech trap­pings: glis­ten­ing glass sur­faces, slid­ing doors, in­te­rior lifts and CCTV cam­eras on which much of the ac­tion is ob­served. It makes a change from the warm lamps and chintzy so­fas of the first film, and seems bet­ter at­tuned to the chill­ing un­re­al­ity of the story, a se­ries of in­ter­lock­ing puz­zles and deceptions.

Milo ar­rives at the house, con­fesses to be­ing Mag­gie’s lover and asks Wyke to di­vorce her. Th­ese days, a cou­ple wish­ing to marry would hardly re­quire such favours from the wronged hus­band. Wyke pro­poses that Milo should steal some of Mag­gie’s jew­ellery while he ( Wyke) claims the in­sur­ance money.

The en­su­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal game of cat- and­mouse moves through es­ca­lat­ing de­grees of vi­o­lence and mu­tual hu­mil­i­a­tion. Harold Pin­ter’s screen­play makes its points about greed and class dis­tinc­tion, and the ho­mo­erotic sug­ges­tions ( and the lan­guage) are more ex­plicit. Branagh never al­lows the ten­sion to slacken and, in a play so nar­rowly fo­cused and con­fined, this is quite an achieve­ment, even with the dis­trac­tions of tech­nol­ogy and the use of ex­treme close- ups, al­low­ing the mi­nut­est scru­tiny of fa­cial pores and stub­ble. The dis­trib­u­tors have pleaded with us not to re­veal any­thing about the plot and I wouldn’t dream of do­ing so. I’ll say only that this stylish and in­tel­li­gent film is unique among mys­tery sto­ries, and still thor­oughly en­joy­able.

Tri­umph: From left, Luke Ford, Toni Col­lette and Rhys Wake­field in a scene from Aus­tralian film The Black Bal­loon , the story of a trou­bled teenage boy deal­ing with his brother’s autism

Ex­cel­lent: Michael Caine and Jude Law play cat and mouse in a thor­oughly en­joy­able re­make of Sleuth , di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh

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