Melancholy and Australia: a piece on The Turning (2013) and The Rover(2014) - Raindance

One of the highlights from Cannes this year was David Michôd’s dystopian crime thriller, The Rover, starring Robert Pattinson and Australia’s go-to-chameleon Guy Pearce. This film is likely to forge a successful path at upcoming festivals such as Sydney Film Festival where it will show in early June.

The bleak crime feature speaks to a larger trend in Australian cinema that also applies to 2013’s The Turning, I discussed this theme late last year.

The anthology film based on Tim Winton’s short stories is a beautifully crafted work that masterfully conveys solitude, grief and self-reflection. It is slightly unnerving how its remoteness paints such a complex picture of sadness. But though it’s a powerful film that is deserving of the praise it will undoubtedly receive, it is a little frustrating to see Australia once again be portrayed on the big screen as being bleak and remote. Perhaps this is an oversimplification of a complex and far reaching work, yet I definitely feel it’s time to try to understand why Australian filmmakers constantly instruct audience to reflect on Australian with such a sombre contemplation.

Australia’s onscreen image has often been moody, and thriving with criminal activity. Think Two Hands (1999), Animal Kingdom (2010), Wolf Creek (2005), Snowtown (2011), Little Fish (2005), The Boys (1998), Candy (2006). The majority of these films have a low-middle class character pool and the plots are saturated with an unshakeable grief. Like those previously mentioned, The Turning is invested in telling the (apparently) fragile and tragic Australian story. Well, eighteen stories in this instance, with eighteen different directors, culminating in a three hour run-time with an intermission. The film will only be showing in select theatres for one session per day, being treated almost as an exhibition.

The stories which make up The Turning, all written by Tim Winton, are set in Western Australia. For some of the directors, like Mia Wasikowska, who takes on one of The Turning’s more successful segments “Long, Clear View”, it is their first time directing. These are up alongside pieces by more seasoned directors such as Justin Kurzel and Warwick Thornton. Despite the numerous creative contributors, the film maintains a constant tonal consistency. There are many factors at play other than the bleak narratives that create the stark tone to the film: there is visual coherency due to the muted colour palette that many of the chapters adopt, and a restrained use of dialogue, giving the film an overall stripped back feeling.

The Western Sydney landscapes that are depicted are expansive, seemingly endless and barren. Actress Brenna Harding, who stars in the segment “Cockleshell” spoke at the Sydney premiere of The Turning at the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne. She took to the stage and gave a rehearsed but undeniably charming account of her days on set. She had everyone fixated on her quiet, simple, alluring portrayal of Australia. Harding described her shoot location as being extremely remote. She accomplished in those few minutes what this film, at its best, accomplishes over the three-hour span. It draws you in quietly and reveals itself at its own pace, asking patience of its audience members. The directors deliver, to great affect, an alienating account of Australian life.

The Turning is a great piece of art; it is affecting and will no doubt stay with viewers long after the credits roll, and it is exciting to have work like this being produced in Australia. If only a few added moments of sophisticated humour could have been included to lift us out of the eternal sadness that Australia’s feature films seem so ready to relish in.

Like The Turning, The Rover looks set to propel audiences into sparse landscapes riddled with crime and deliver a sense of Australia as an isolating space.
The Rover is stated for general release from mid-June.