No look­ing back in a colour­less world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Stephen Romei

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.

The Giver,

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

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