No looking back in a colourless world
The Giver (M) National release PHILLIP Noyce has made some classic dramas of the Australian screen: Newsfront (1978), Heatwave (1982), the miniseries The Dismissal (1983), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). However since the 1989 nautical thriller Dead Calm, with Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and Billy Zane, he seems to have been busiest with Hollywood action-suspense movies, often based on novels, such as Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, Jeffery Deaver’s The Bone Collector and his excellent adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. His new film, develops this trend, drawing on the bestselling 1993 young adult fantasy novel by American author Lois Lowry.
In Noyce’s hands, The Giver has a satisfyingly straightforward set-up, with clever use of black-and-white film. It is 2048 and humankind has endured some sort of existential crisis: global war, climate disaster — probably a combination of both. The event is referred to simply as The Ruin. Yet the survivors inhabit not some anarchic Walking Dead wasteland but, at first glance, a utopia.
Everyone lives in pristine Communities, lolling about in spacious 2048 McMansions. The weather is permanently pleasant, perfect for bicycling, which seems the only mode of transport. There are lots of rules but these seem reasonable enough. Never lie, for example. “There are no losers, no winners,’’ we are told. Well, that sounds like any primary school today.
We quickly meet three of the central characters, friends who will be put to the test as the film unfolds: Jonas (young Australian actor Brenton Thwaites), Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan). It is graduation day for the trio, when their adult roles in their particular Community will be “assigned”, and it is here we start to feel a bit uneasy about this perfect, sterile Eden, part Brave New World, part Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It turns out that, following The Ruin, the Elders put in charge of the Communities decided to erase everyone’s memories, so no one remembers what life was like before. They also thought it a good idea to eradicate colours. Further, everyone receives a daily injection that suppresses their emotions. Babies are genetically designed in labs, born to surrogates and assigned to “family units”, a population control system that easily slides into the inhuman.
Only one person has been permitted to retain memories of the old world: the Receiver of Memory, who uses this knowledge of the past to advise the Elders. Jonas is selected for this role on graduation and sent to the present Receiver, played by Jeff Bridges, who observes his role has now become that of The Giver. Jonas is gradually exposed to the past via an osmosis-like transferral from the older man, who has suffered a deep personal trauma.
The first memory Jonas receives is of snow and a sled, in what looks like a nod to Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. Thwaites, a Home and Away alumnus in his first big film role, deftly conveys a young man’s amazement at the fantastical past and his yearning to share it with others. Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes are effectively creepy as Jonas’s parents, their roles underscoring a vital part of the story: it’s not that the adults are hiding anything; they literally have no idea. There are some nice touches: when a crying baby is given a “comfort object” — a plush elephant — Jonas’s father says it’s a hippo. It’s just an archaic word: no other species survived The Ruin.
Though the past can be traumatic (there’s a harrowing sequence revisiting the Vietnam War), Jonas realises the world he has known all his life is missing something vital. Love, for starters. With the encouragement of The Giver, he decides to rebel. This confuses and excites his potential romantic interest, Fiona, upsets the Chief Elder (a sad, stern Meryl Streep, who knows more than she is letting on) and puts Asher, who has become a drone pilot, part of the security apparatus, in a difficult position. These conflicts come together in the fast-paced final third of the film as Jonas pursues a new future for everyone, whether they like it or not.
Thwaites is a revelation: handsome, engaging, convincing, he has a touch of the young Mel Gibson about him. (Before you laugh, rewatch Tim.) Bridges speaks as though his mouth is full of pebbles and wears heelless scuffs, affectations perhaps intended to denote gravitas and individuality, but which I found distracting. Nevertheless, he is a class act, capable of pulling off risky scenes such as one in which he explains to Jonas the concept of love.
The Giver has some plausibility gaps — but it’s a dystopian fantasy, after all. It’s an intelligent, accomplished, unpadded (at 97 minutes) thriller, and one suitable for the children. Despite the M rating there is little violence and no sex. It’s a reminder — and we all need this from time to time — that the answer to a flawed world is not to remake it anew but just try to make it a bit better.
Brenton Thwaites, as Jonas in
is a revelation in his first big film role