Parting blow to evangelism
WHEN Francois Truffaut said that every director keeps making the same film, he may have had Paul Cox in mind. Cox has been making much the same film all his life, exploring the inner lives of his characters, often in genteel Melbourne suburbia: they are personal, provocative, defiantly non-commercial and resolutely eschew big budgets, big studios, big stars and, many would say, big audiences.
His latest, Salvation , is a disappointment. But like all his films it has something bold to say. Like that other great emigre auteur Rolf de Heer, Cox sticks doggedly to his creative impulses, directing from his own screenplays and pursuing his deepest intellectual convictions in films that are always challenging and unsettling.
Salvation — to oversimplify — distils his ideas on love, beauty and religion. And to oversimplify still further, it comes down in favour of the first two and rejects the third.
The film has something of the air of a valedictory testament, as Cox is terminally ill ( according to those closest to him, he doesn’t care who knows it).
I apologise for mentioning this deeply personal misfortune, but I think Salvation can best be understood in the light of the director’s experience. He has been drawn before to the contemplation of mortality.
In A Woman’s Tale ( 1991) he cast Sheila Florance as a woman dying of cancer, knowing that the actor, in real life, was in the same situation as her character.
As the film scholar Brian McFarlane wrote, it was ‘‘ courageous filmmaking, if not very likely to make its director rich’’.
Salvation brings together familiar faces from Cox’s early days. Here’s a thin-lipped Wendy Hughes as Gloria Daye, a Christian teleevangelist who looks for all the world like Sarah Palin ( though we are assured that Salvation was made before the Alaskan Governor’s rise to global prominence). Here are Chris Haywood, Charles ‘‘ Bud’’ Tingwell and Tony LlewellynJones in smaller roles.
Bruce Myles sensitively plays Gloria’s unhappy husband, Barry, a role that would certainly have gone in the old days to Cox’s favourite actor, Norman Kaye, who played a Best Friend’s Wedding was a hit, and his remake of Peter Pan was applauded by many of those who saw it. He’s also back with a high-profile movie, a lightweight adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling chick-lit novel
, transplanting the action from London to New York.
Rebecca Bloomwood ( Australian Isla Fisher) is a young journalist who toils at a finance similar, sexually frustrated character in Lonely Hearts. Barry and Gloria share a strange marriage. Though united in their faith, their temperaments are wildly different. Barry is shy, prudent, scholarly, excessively courteous; Gloria is sharp and single-minded, with a cool head for the financial realities of her business.
Her evangelistic crusades have made her rich, and at the start of the film she has just had a facelift (‘‘ Jesus would want me to look my best to defeat Satan’’). Barry, when he isn’t watching his wife’s recorded sermons, is paying regular calls on Irina ( Natalia Novakova), a prostitute with whom he has unwisely fallen in love.
It is not difficult to make fun of the populist religious zealot, and Cox doesn’t pull his punches. Salvation will probably offend the magazine, muddling her way through the business world and caring little for it. She longs to work for a fashion magazine, and clothes are her obsession: her credit-card debt is so large that she needs a run-up just to open the bill.
Kinsella’s book is a flawed read. Becky ( as she is known) can be entertaining, but she stumbles from one predicament to another, learning almost nothing from her experiences. devout and its gratuitous clips of George W. Bush in less than flattering situations will offend a few conservatives. But no film of Cox is driven by purely satirical impulses, still less by malice.
Barry’s love for Irina is movingly observed, and while the narrative is sketchy and leaves many questions unanswered, the film has an underlying tenderness and humanity that does much to atone for the improbability of the story. There is humour as well. Irina’s presence at a dinner party at Gloria and Barry’s house is rich in comic tension. Barry Humphries gives us a funny turn as one of Irina’s clients. The opening credits use the words ‘‘ Introducing Barry Humphries’’, as if to assure us that nothing should be taken too seriously.
The final moments have an unexpected snap
Hogan has managed to make this slight material even more far-fetched, and Rebecca doesn’t really convince as a journalist, whose columns — comparing complex transactions to buying a coat — are viewed as a refreshing way to explain finance to laypeople.
It’s obvious from the outset that she will end up with her editor, Luke ( Hugh Dancy), and the screenplay barely bothers to flesh out the events that bring them together.
The woman who has the fashion editor job Rebecca wants, Alicia ( Leslie Bibb), is halfheartedly thrown up as a romantic rival and then taken out of the equation far too quickly.
The costumes by Patricia Field ( Ugly Betty and The Devil Wears Prada ) are amazing, and the mannequins that entice Rebecca to spend are a nice touch.
But such inducements to conspicuous consumption seem out of step with the film’s message about money not buying happiness.
Fisher is engaging, but with such slight material the laughs rely too much on flailing slapstick and the results are forgettable.
And as we’re learning in the real reckless spending isn’t all that funny.
world, of black humour and suspense, and every so often we are astonished by an image of striking beauty and strangeness.
* * * FILMS about multicultural Australia are still sufficiently rare as to be sure of a respectful critical reception, even when their treatment of racial minorities is burdened with cultural stereotypes.
Two Fists, One Heart is the first film by Malaysian-born Australian director Shawn Seet, who leaves us in no doubt that his characters, with their brutal emotional outbursts and powerful codes of family loyalty, come from volatile Sicilian stock.
Anthony Argo ( Daniel Amalm) works as a nightclub doorman in Perth and shows promise as a boxer. He is trained by his proud, illtempered father Joe ( Ennio Fantastichini), who pushes him to the limits and disapproves of his budding romance with the beautiful Kate ( Jessica Marais), a psychology student with little stomach for the brutalities of the ring.
Anthony is the sort of boxer who has more fights outside the ring than within it. There seem to be more violent brawls in Seet’s film than I counted in Watchmen . Anthony and his father are always ready to pick a fight to defend some victim of neighbourhood injustice or uphold the family honour. But under the influence of Kate and her musician brother Tom ( Tim Minchin), Anthony begins to question his boxing career. Joe disowns him, and the stage is set for a fatherson relationship drama of considerable power and daring.
The climax, of course, is a boxing match, and I am giving nothing away in saying that the standard pattern in boxing dramas is for the good guy to receive a terrible battering in the early rounds before recovering when the fight looks lost. Can Anthony do it? Can he and Joe be reconciled at last?
The screenwriter, Rai Fazio, of Sicilian background, was a boxer from the age of four, trained by his father. So he knows what he’s talking about. He also plays Nico, the ex-crim who confronts Anthony in the ring for the final punch-out.
Two Fists, One Heart is an ambitious film, with the longest list of credited minor characters I have seen in an Australian production. The fight scenes are grimly realistic. The ending might have moved me more deeply if I had been able to care as much about Anthony as I did about his dad, and if the secondary themes had been better developed. The story of the little Aboriginal boy somehow gets lost in the bigger picture, and we see too little of Tom, the gay musician. Tom is probably the film’s most interesting and engaging character, which is surely not what the filmmakers intended.
Stereotypes: Jessica Marais as Kate and Daniel Amalm as Anthony Argo in Two Fists, One Heart