Film Evan Williams reviews Tim Winton’s The Turning
IHAD intended to begin this review by saying The Turning is the longest and most tedious film I have seen in years, but that would have been a little unfair. Certainly it’s long — three hours plus an interval — and many people will find it awfully boring, not to say baffling, but only if we judge it according to the standard movie conventions of plot and storytelling. The ads describe it as a ‘‘ unique cinema event’’. Tim Winton, whose writings form the basis of the screenplay, calls it a ‘‘ strange and wonderful creation’’. I’d call it a grand artistic experiment that doesn’t quite work. On reflection, I don’t think it works at all, but that, too, may be a little unfair.
It’s based on Winton’s 2004 book The Turning, a collection of 17 short stories tenuously linked by recurring themes and characters. The idea of making a film of them came from Robert Connolly, the Australian writer-director best known for films such as Three Dollars and The Bank. Connolly has described the book as a ‘‘ cryptic jigsaw puzzle’’ —a fair description of the film itself, which consists of 17 short films, each with its own director, writer and cast. But even to call them short films is something of a stretch. I’d call them fragments: fleeting, impressionistic, some with dialogue, others more or less wordless. As a body of work they are hardly a coherent whole.
What The Turning lacks is a director’s guiding hand to bring to the project some clarity of purpose and a semblance of unity. It’s a role Connolly might have taken.
I wish I could be more positive about The Turning. It was a bold idea, perhaps a visionary one. Winton is among our most revered writers. And visually the film is a joy — much of it set in a small community on the West Australian coast, with its angry seascapes, murky streams and foggy woodlands. Has any Australian film brought together more proven and potential talent? It’s like a promotional reel for the local film industry.
With a cast including Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Robyn Nevin and Hugo Weaving, who could ask for more? Connolly’s idea was to invite a host of writers, actors, theatre directors, animators, photographers and choreographers to contribute something to the finished work, and many ventured into new fields. Thus Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham direct for the first time; Warwick Thornton, who made the wonderful Samson & Delilah, directs one segment in The Turning and tries his hand at cinematography in another. The opening sequence is narrated by Colin Friels; Rose Byrne and Miranda Otto turn up in the title story, in which someone else plays Jesus.
So what exactly is The Turning about, assuming it’s about anything? It’s hard to say. But there is a mood in of melancholy in these stories, of regret, of experience revisited through the prism of memory, of characters burdened by guilts and fears. Someone called Vic Lang appears in eight of the stories, played by eight actors from boyhood to maturity, and it was a while before it dawned on me that he is meant to be the same person. Gail Lang, Vic’s wife, and Carol, his mother, are each played by three women.
Much of this information I gleaned from a glossy booklet to be distributed to audiences at screenings. And they’re going to need it. My advice would be to get a copy of the booklet in advance and study it closely. You then may understand why Brakey is in love with his