The brother of all conflicts
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