Bird­men of Won Wron

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams

(M) Limited na­tional re­lease on Thurs­day

(M) Limited re­lease

Heal­ing

The Cross­ing

IT is 16 years since Craig Mon­a­han made his Aus­tralian de­but fea­ture The In­ter­view, a mys­te­ri­ous po­lice drama that some­how man­aged to com­bine Franz Kafka with Al­fred Hitch­cock’s The Wrong Man. Its star, Hugo Weav­ing, can be seen again in Mon­a­han’s en­chant­ing new film, due for re­lease this week. There aren’t many ac­tors who can up­stage Weav­ing on his home ground. He gets top billing in Heal­ing and turns in his usual ac­com­plished per­for­mance. But he’s by no means the dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity. His co-stars are Don Hany, whom many will know from his work in tele­vi­sion, and Yas­mine, a beau­ti­ful dark crea­ture with a funny nose and a most ap­peal­ing per­son­al­ity. Yas­mine doesn’t speak a word and is played by three stand-ins. But she pretty well steals the show.

Yas­mine is a wedge-tailed ea­gle, and we know how film­mak­ers love birds. In Storm Boy, a key work of the 1970s Aus­tralian film re­nais­sance, a pel­i­can proved more ap­peal­ing than the boy hero. Don­ald Duck and Tweetie Pie had mil­lions of loyal fans, and who can for­get Kes, or Run Wild, Run Free, or Dr Dolit­tle, or The Pigeon That Took Rome — to say noth­ing of that direst of Hitch­cock fan­tasies, The Birds? In The Bird­man of Al­ca­traz, Burt Lan­caster found re­lief from the hard­ship of prison life by be­friend­ing a stray bird and study­ing or­nithol­ogy. Heal­ing, too, is set in a prison. Hany plays Vik­tor Kha­dem, a long-term pris­oner of Ira­nian back­ground whose sen­tence for man­slaugh­ter is com­ing to an end. To pre­pare him for a re­turn to life on the out­side, Vik­tor is trans­ferred to Won Wron, a min­i­mum-se­cu­rity “cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity” in ru­ral Vic­to­ria, where he meets and falls in love with Yas­mine.

Mon­a­han’s screen­play (writ­ten with Ali­son Nis­selle) was prompted by a true story. In 1998 — the year The In­ter­view screened at Cannes — he read a news­pa­per re­port about a project for pris­oner re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Healesville Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary pro­posed to Vic­to­ria’s prison au­thor­i­ties that the in­mates of nearby Won Wron be al­lowed to care for in­jured birds be­fore re­turn­ing them to the wild. Most in­jured birds were rap­tors — owls, ea­gles, fal­cons and other birds of prey.

Mon­a­han’s film makes much of the par­al­lels be­tween caged birds and caged pris­on­ers: be­tween birds with in­juries and men such as Vik­tor, crip­pled in mind and spirit. The idea that each species would help the other re­turn to nor­mal life may seem trite and im­prob­a­ble, but the Won Wron ex­per­i­ment seemed to work. Heal­ing is a beau­ti­ful film, ex­plor­ing no­tions of free­dom and cap­tiv­ity, for­give­ness and re­demp­tion, and the en­dur­ing bonds be­tween hu­man­ity and the an­i­mal world.

Mag­nif­i­cently shot by Andrew Les­nie, with a fine, unassertive score by David Hirschfelder, the film opens with a lan­guid shot of Yas­mine in flight. She’s the real-life fore­run­ner of the drone, mis­tress of all she sur­veys and deadly in at­tack. As some­one ob­serves: “You can watch her for an hour and not see her lift a wing.” Then, skim­ming low above a fence, she smashes into a post and breaks a wing. Su­per­vised by Mr Perry, Weav­ing’s en­thu­si­as­tic prison of­fi­cer, Vik­tor and his fel­low in­mates set about clear­ing land and build­ing aviaries. Yas­mine is not their only pa­tient. Paul (Xavier Sa­muel), a shy young pris­oner es­tranged from his fa­ther, be­friends an in­jured owl. Nor are birds the only pets. Shane (Mark Leonard Win­ter), ner­vous, ea­ger to please and un­fail­ingly po­lite to ev­ery­one, keeps a rat hid­den in his cloth­ing.

Hany’s com­mand­ing pres­ence — griz­zled, un­kempt, an­gry, lonely and spurned by his fam­ily — makes him a stronger fig­ure on screen than any of the men in author­ity. And what of his crime? Yes, he killed a man, but he in­sists it was an ac­ci­dent; and, surely, any­one whose heart is won over by a wedge-tailed ea­gle must be a bit of a softie un­der­neath. There are lovely mo­ments when he talks to Yas­mine in Farsi. And when the bird is fi­nally healed and re­leased into the wild, the sep­a­ra­tion is as touch­ing an any­thing in Bambi or Lassie Come Home.

That’s the trou­ble with an­i­mal pic­tures. Facile an­thro­po­mor­phism and sen­ti­men­tal­ity tend to get the up­per hand.

It’s the great strength of Mon­a­han’s film that the emo­tions of the men, their per­sonal dra­mas, are never rel­e­gated to sec­ondary sta­tus, de­spite strong com­pe­ti­tion from the avian cast. It’s a film rich in ideas and vivid char­ac­ters. Watch­ing it is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. IN 2005 two brave young Aus­tralians, Clark Carter and Chris Bray, set out to walk across Vic­to­ria Is­land, a vast un­in­hab­ited ter­rain in the Cana­dian Arc­tic, lug­ging a cou­ple of wheeled carts bear­ing sup­plies. Their jour­ney was aban­doned when they re­alised their food would run out too quickly. For their sec­ond at­tempt three years later, they built lighter carts and set out ear­lier to take ad­van­tage of the pal­lid Arc­tic sun. And yes, af­ter a jour­ney of more than 1000km, they made it. Well, of course they did; other­wise we wouldn’t be see­ing a re­mark­able doc­u­men­tary from di­rec­tor Ju­lian Har­vey, most of it as­sem­bled from footage shot by the ad­ven­tur­ers.

Carter and Bray were alone. There were no other hu­mans within hun­dreds of kilo­me­tre; their only liv­ing com­pan­ions were wolves, po­lar bears and an oc­ca­sional swarm of mos­qui­toes. Ev­ery step they took re­quired back­break­ing ef­fort. More than once they were close to de­spair. “There’s no pos­si­ble way we can keep go­ing like this,” Bray protests at one point. But they did.

One can ad­mire their dogged­ness and de­ter­mi­na­tion, their sheer guts, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that no film of their ex­pe­ri­ence is likely to do jus­tice to it. Much of The Cross­ing is grip­ping and beau­ti­ful, but some of it feels repet­i­tive and slow. End­less shots of blokes drag­ging carts though ice and mud don’t make for much ex­cite­ment. We are for­tu­nate that the he­roes of The Cross­ing are ar­tic­u­late, in­tel­li­gent and good-hu­moured; we get plenty of close-ups of their talk­ing heads, and they have much to tell us. “We’re bro­ken men,” says Clark near the end of their or­deal, “all we can do is laugh.”

Early in the film he con­fesses, some­what rue­fully, that their jour­ney may lack the glam­our of an Ever­est ex­pe­di­tion or an ocean cross­ing in a row­ing boat. But see the film for what it is: a re­minder that in our world of shel­tered com­fort and safety, there is still a place for old-fash­ioned ad­ven­ture, and that the love of ad­ven­ture is a pre­cious and uniquely hu­man need.

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