Ca­per de­liv­ers the goods

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Wid- selves. Davis’s Veron­ica is a singularly de­ter­mined woman who eas­ily fits into the role of gang leader, while Linda and Al­ice prove their met­tle in a crunch. Aus­tralia’s De­bicki, who tow­ers over most of her co-stars, is ex­tremely im­pres­sive in this role, and the cast­ing of Jacki Weaver as her un­con­ven­tional Pol­ish-born mother adds to the en­joy­ment.

With its themes of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and large-scale crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, Wi­d­ows is ef­fort­lessly trans­formed into an Amer­i­can set­ting. The di­a­logue is smart, the ac­tion is mas­ter­fully staged, and ev­ery mem­ber of the di­verse cast is in top form. If you en­joy a good thriller, this should be high on your list. The ti­tle of Richard Eyre’s new film, The Chil­dren Act, refers to a piece of Bri­tish leg­is­la­tion that, in 1989, was de­signed to pro­tect the wel­fare of ev­ery­one un­der the age of 18. Scripted by Ian McEwan from his own novel, the film cen­tres on the life, both pro­fes­sional and per­sonal, of Fiona Maye ( Emma Thomp­son in a great per­for­mance), a ded­i­cated fam­ily court judge who faces daunt­ingly dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions ev­ery day.

Re­ferred to for­mally, and rather quaintly, as “My Lady” by ev­ery­one in court as well as by her loyal clerk (Ja­son Watkins), she is first seen ad­ju­di­cat­ing over an al­most im­pos­si­bly dif­fi­cult case in­volv­ing Si­amese twin boys: if they are not sep­a­rated, both will die but if surgery goes ahead, as the doc­tors pre­scribe, one of the boys will die any­way; and their par­ents are op­posed to any in­ter­ven­tion. Faced with such life-and­death de­ci­sions on a day-to-day ba­sis, the worka­holic judge has ne­glected her per­sonal life. Her hus­band, Jack (Stan­ley Tucci), who teaches a uni­ver­sity course on Chris­tian­ity, and how it has been re­spon­si­ble for clos­ing the mind, is sup­port­ive but frus­trated and one evening an­nounces what he plans to do about it — he in­tends to have an af­fair with a col­league, a woman who, the shocked Fiona re­calls, dam­aged the floor of their apart­ment with her high heels when she came to din­ner.

With her pri­vate life in tur­moil, Fiona now faces yet an­other in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult le­gal de­ci­sion, a de­ci­sion very sim­i­lar to that pre­sented in an­other Bri­tish film, Basil Dear­den’s Life for Ruth (1962). The 17-year-old son of de­vout Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses (Ben Chap­lin, Eileen Walsh) is suf­fer­ing from an ag­gres­sive form of leukaemia. He ur­gently re­quires a blood trans­fu­sion but, ac­cord­ing to the be­liefs of the fam­ily’s re­li­gion, the mix­ing of blood is a form of pol­lu­tion and ex­pressly for­bid­den by God.

The boy, Adam (Fionn White­head), ap­par­ently ac­cepts his par­ents’ de­ci­sion to dis­al­low the trans­fu­sion, but Fiona breaks usual pro­to­col to visit the boy in hos­pi­tal and talk to him her­self. This un­ortho­dox de­ci­sion leads to un­ex­pected con­se­quences and some un­pre­dictable de­vel­op­ments.

This is a film that poses im­por­tant moral and le­gal ques­tions, but it’s also a per­sonal story in which a dili­gent woman, who reg­u­larly faces in­tense crit­i­cism from those who dis­agree with her judg­ments, has to con­front sev­eral deeply trou­bling per­sonal prob­lems. Tucci un­der­plays the key role of Jack, White­head is heart­break­ing as the young man whose re­ac­tions to the judge’s in­ter­ven­tions pro­pel this in­trigu­ing con­tem­po­rary drama, and Thomp­son shines in one of her most sat­is­fy­ing screen roles. Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Alena Lod­kina’s strik­ingly fresh first fea­ture, Strange Colours, was sup­ported and de­vel­oped by the Bi­en­nale Col­lege pro­gram of the Venice film fes­ti­val and it’s prob­a­bly fair to say that the project would have strug­gled to find fund­ing in this coun­try. That’s not a com­ment on the qual­ity of the ma­te­rial but rather on its aus­tere ap­proach to nar­ra­tive.

Milena (Kate Cheel) trav­els by bus from an un­spec­i­fied city to the opal min­ing com­mu­nity of Light­ning Ridge where her fa­ther (Daniel P. Jones) is ill. The pair have been es­tranged for a long time, but she vis­its him in his hos­pi­tal bed, then moves into his house, an iso­lated, clut­tered place ob­vi­ously geared to the most ba­sic bach­e­lor liv­ing.

On the sur­face, noth­ing much hap­pens. Some of her fa­ther’s friends, un­kempt and with strag­gly beards, drop in to see her. They don’t re­ally know what to say to her. She at­tempts to rec­on­cile with her fa­ther. She meets a miner she likes (Justin Courtin) and de­cides to stay.

The ti­tle refers to the colours of the opals that are har­vested un­der­ground in this re­mote place. And a very spe­cific sense of place comes across strongly in Lod­kina’s min­i­mal­ist yet strik­ing film. The iso­lated com­mu­nity, with its pub, ram­shackle houses and un­der­ground opal mines, pro­vides a vivid back­drop to a mod­est yet strangely haunt­ing drama.

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