Thursday, September 6, 2012

Schepisi and Morris tackle Patrick White's THE EYE OF THE STORM, doing it justice; Rampling, Rush and Davis all shine

Patrick White, who died in 1990, remains the only Australian novelist and playwright to have won the Nobel Prize, and his popular family saga THE EYE OF THE STORM was said to have helped that 1973 win, as it was published the same year. TrustMovies remembers reading it around the time of publication and enjoy-ing it (somewhat), but it has not stuck with him very strongly. Consequently, watching the new movie based on that book brought back only fleeting memories of its tale of a dying matriarch of a wealthy Aussie dynasty, and the not-much-loved son and daughter who return down under from Britain and France to see her off.

This story involves everything from generational skirmishes to family secrets, immigration and emigration, class differences, the Australian penchant for self-denigration, and more. One of the Australia's finest film directors, Fred Schepisi (shown at right), who has given us The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the splendid film version of Six Degrees of Separation and the brilliant Last Orders, and the actress/screenwriter Judy Morris (below, left),

have done a yeoman job of adapting and distilling more than 600 pages down to this 131-minute movie, while retaining depth of character and enough incident to give those above themes decent play. This was perhaps an even more difficult job because none of the leading characters in the book (and film) are particularly likable. Yet they are full-bodied and very human. And while only two generations are shown here, it will be clear to any thinking person that the matriarch's parents no doubt helped instill in her the inability to love, which she passed down to her children, and they to theirs (whom we do not see: two generations of these folk are plenty).

The cast that Schepisi and the producers have assembled is sterling, beginning with Charlotte Rampling (above) as the powerful woman in charge of things. This is the largest role and most central character that Ms Rampling has taken on in some time (she is more often seen in supporting parts), and she fills it out impressively. Always a subtle but commanding actress, one who often looks as if she is withholding something, she is well cast here as an aging woman unused to giving up any portion of the power she possesses.

As her son (a little Oedipal stuff seem to be going on) and daughter (a woman never as accomplished or beautiful as mom) Geoffrey Rush (above) and Judy Davis (below) are simply as good as it gets. As an actor who's had some success in Britain ("until your Macbeth," as mom is quick to point out), he captures the actor's ego, jealousy and ability to "act" any way at any given moment. And he still manages to remain human and, god, so very needy.

Ms Davis is always revelatory, whether essaying Judy Garland or Sybylla Melvyn, playing a smart 'n sleazy Presidential aide or a delightfully overwrought tourist in Barcelona. A much more accomplished and versatile actress than Rampling, here she uses her arsenal of subtle changes and minute expressions to convey the hurt and pain her mother has always inflicted, even now, as the woman is dying. Little wonder this daughter has not -- and never will -- grow up.

Among the excellent supporting cast, three people stand out. I'm all for nepotism when it results in a performance as good and glamorous as that of Alexandra Schepisi (above, left), the director's daughter, who plays the most important of the nurses caring for the Rampling character and who sets the "class" theme in play, falling as she does for the family son, who uses her just as it appears he uses everyone and everything.

As a frightened and perhaps slightly crazy Russian emigre who has found favor with the matriarch, Helen Morse, dancing above, gives a sad, frightened performance that sticks with you.

And, as the Rampling character's solicitor and general go-to guy, an actor I don't recall previously noticing, John Gaden (above, left) delivers a performance of quiet rectitude and trust. His character, above all, is full of surprise -- and buried life.

As unlikable, but always real, as many of these character are, it's a pleasure to report that the movie itself is surprisingly enjoyable. We are kept slightly off-balance by everything, as the various pieces of the puzzle that make up these lives continue to shift until, at last, we see some kind of order slowly forming.

The finale is both sad and enriching, with the whole damned canvas -- times present and past, loves found and lost, promises made and betrayals undertaken -- finally filled to the frame with something robust and flawed. You might call it life.

A shoo-in for the suddenly-more-visible senior audience (and thankfully less feel-goody than either that Marigold Hotel or the springing hope), The Eye of the Storm, from Sycamore Entertainment Group and Paper Bark Films, opens this Friday, September 7, in New York (Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Cinema Village), in the Los Angeles area (Laemmle Playhouse 7, Music Hall 3 and Fallbrook 7) and at the Rialto Theater in The Villages, Florida. Simultaneously, it will be available for viewing nationwide via VOD. Check your TV-reception provider for details.

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