Part­ing blow to evan­ge­lism

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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