NO one did more for the revival of the Australian film industry in the 1970s than Peter Weir, the Sydney estate agent’s son who began his career as a production assistant with Seven on the Mavis Bramston Show. Three of his most notable films can be seen this week. He was still in his 20s when he made his first feature, The Cars that Ate Paris (Tuesday, 5.40am, Movie Greats), a dire black comedy set in a remote outback community where the townsfolk make a living arranging car crashes for unwary motorists. The looters pawn what they can recover from the wrecks and a town doctor performs questionable medical experiments on the victims. There were early-career roles for Max Gillies, John Meillon and Bruce Spence. Others have remarked that this macabre fable echoed themes in The Wild One and anticipated ideas in George Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
A year later Weir directed his first masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Sunday, 9.10am, Movie Greats), in which he revealed the slightly mystical sensibility that was to pervade much of his work. It’s the story of three schoolgirls and a teacher who disappear while exploring Hanging Rock, in Victoria, during a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900. The police fail to find them and a search by a young Englishman yields odd and inconclusive results. Based on a novel by Joan Lindsay, the story is entirely fictional, but many seeing the film for the first time were convinced the events really happened. This lyrical existential thriller deals with notions of time and the nature of reality, with strong hints of repressed sexuality among the girls. Jacki Weaver, Rachel Roberts and Helen Morse head an excellent cast.
One of Weir’s first and most successful Hollywood films was Dead Poets Society (Saturday, 8.30pm, Movie Greats), which won an Oscar for screenwriter Tom Schulman and a nomination for Weir’s direction. Set in 1959 in a posh Vermont prep school, where teaching methods and moral attitudes run on strictly conventional lines, it’s among the best of all inspirational teacher films, thanks to a compelling performance from Robin Williams, whose natural instinct for schtick and sentimentality is restrained by Weir’s direction.
Also on my must-see list: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Wednesday, 8.35pm, Fox Classics), a masterly adaptation by Harold Pinter and director Karel Reisz of John Fowles’s novel — a project considered unfilmable, and abandoned, by Fred Zinnemann and Mike Nichols, among others. Magnificent performances by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, who play illicit lovers in Victorian England as well as actors making a contemporary film of the same story. A dazzling tour de force.
Robin Williams is compelling as a gifted teacher in Dead Poets Society