The Eye of The Storm – sex and molestation for those over 55.

Review: The Eye of the Storm

Like most Australians, I haven’t read any Patrick White. You see, it’s complicated for us. Australia suffers from the worst cultural cringe of almost any Western Nation (something our close neighbours the New Zealanders take great pleasure in observing) and to have an Australian awarded a Nobel

for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”

leaves us a little cold.

The first thing an Australian wants to know is… yes yes, but is that good?  Does that mean his work is good?

We can’t tell for ourselves. A few well meaning ‘writerly’ Australians have had a bit of a go, but it’s always the same old thing. Don’t say he’s too good (we don’t want to look ‘American’ about ourselves now do we) but don’t say he’s too bad (we don’t want to downplay the significance of the Nobel in case they decide to award me one).

We really need to know what England, France, Germany (if they’re not in one of their “moods”) thinks of ‘our’ writer. He is difficult to read, which MAY mean he is a genius or MAY mean the prize was one of those famous political moves. The thing is we can’t find out, because no one is reading any bloody Patrick White and therefore no one can tell us.

Well, Fred Schepisi thought he would give Patrick White a bit of a go. Not just a read – conversion to film no less.

After all, life’s great genius’ need film to bring them to the masses.

After seeing this film, I can now claim to have read my first Patrick White. I immediately purchased The Eye of the Storm and a book of short stories by Patrick White, for this beautiful two hour trip into the Australian collective psyche remains as faithful as possible to the book thereby celebrating the writer and what he achieved, through every celluloid minute.

Patrick White is famous for large complicated novels that twist tendril-like around, inside and out of its characters. Writing at a time when psychoanalysis was taking over the European main stream, he embraces art of introspection and imposes his self examination onto others. Elizabeth Hunter, the novels power wielding matriarch is supposedly a character after White’s own mother. We have here a bored wealthy widower, a grazier’s wife, sitting on her death bed taking advantage of her final moments by using the power she has over those around her to shocking effect. She resides in one of the grandiose mansions that frame Sydney’s Centennial Park. These mansions were famous a few years back for their English gardens that needed almost 24-hour water spray in order to maintain their mini faux-British ecosystems in the midst of a desperate Australian drought. And here resides Elizabeth. Financially dominating her staff, and psychologically dominating her children.

The Film is as faithful an examination as one can muster given we are talking about a novel 589 pages long in which very little happens and the writer is famous for his intense characterisations. Fred Schepisi is more than a competent film maker. He’s one of Australia’s best. Six Degrees of Separation remains one of my favourite films and Schepisi does here what he does there so very well. He gives the actors a meticulously prepared platform along with deep respect that calls forth startling performances.

He intended to make a lavish film, he wanted to do White’s novel justice from the start. He made no apologies about a large budget (final say was 15 million. “It’s a story set in a rich person’s world, so you need a certain budget to do that” he said) and in fact accompanied this film with a cry into the dark, lamenting the “indie screech” that good films on low budgets are the current thing: (see AFI Interview here)

Trying to make intelligent films on extremely low budgets is a worldwide disease. To tell some stories properly, and really energise them, takes money. In this case it’s a story set in a rich person’s world, so you need a certain budget to do that. Some low budget films are great, but every film can’t be like that. I wanted to make a film of a certain quality, with a certain film grammar – a film with a lot of locations, some CGI and it’s also a period film [set in the 1970s], which always costs more to create. Sometimes you just have to pay for it.

Elizabeth Hunter (an impeccably aged Charlotte Rampling who is only a little over half a decade on from her two on screen children) is dying. Her children, Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis) have come, along with all their ‘baggage’, to see her. We know there are problems with these relationships. The children are strap for funds and only know how to live as Idol rich. Basil is a knighted thespian whose mother never came to see a performance and reminds him of his poor recent reviews playing King Lear. He performs for his mother, smoothing over life’s bumps (and these are lives made of nothing but bumps) placating her and flirting with her. She reciprocates, always careful to end every pleasantry with a barb the deeply wounded Basil pretends bounce off a-la-water-off-the-ducks back. Dorothy is licking her wounds after her failed marriage in which the family offered her an annual stipend to keep her for the rest of her life in exchange for the title, but she refused and kept the title. It’s the only thing she has to show mother, after all.

The stories of the two children and their life’s responses to the treachery of their mother are played out differently. Basil (who has turned out to be a nasty self involved sort of fellow) starts a relationship with one of the Nurses caring for his mother, Flora (Alexandra Schepisi). The flirtatiousness between Basil and his mother and basil and the women in his life are almost identical portraying a chilling account of a man using every woman in his life to get back at the original one who owns him. When he first arrives to say hello to his mother, Flora (simply being young and pretty) is banished from the room, by Elizabeth with a gruff “must I compete for my sons affections?” Basils seductive behaviour is playful enough to be only mildly odd, but it is later in the film we understand more about why basil is such a shameless philanderer and why this is a form of revenge against his mother.

Dorothy is far more of an open bleeding wound. Her mother’s voracious sexuality has left her damaged, suspicious of sexual connection and dreading intimacy. This is a woman forced to compete sexually with her mother for every man she has ever desired. Even the unwanted advances of a socially climbing politician Athol Shreve (wonderfully played by Colin Friels, Judy Davis’ real life husband and supposedly based on an early days Bob Hawke – it is a very fun moment to see them tussling in the back of a car as she rejects his advances) turn out to be something her mother took up earlier when it was her ‘turn’. Judy Davis’ shock at hearing this is met with a slight reprimand about it “only’ being sex, by a woman who has used sex in every conceivable way to damage and destroy everyone she loves. ‘It’s only sex’ is always the quietly vicious reprimand of those who wield it as the sharpest of weapons.

Along with the children are the staff and their own complicated relationships with the ruthless Elizabeth. She has an unflinching loyalty she doesn’t deserve from her adoring business manager Col Wyburd (Dustin Clare) and his wife Lal (Robyn Nevin) both of whom turn out to be the tragic hero and heroine of the story. Her two nurses, one a nun (Mary deSantis beautifully portrayed by Maria Theodorakis) of whom Elizabeth is clearly envious (this is the only peaceful person in Elizabeth’s life) and the hopelessly out of depth Flora (played by Alexandra Schepisi). In an outstanding performance Helen Morse plays an aged German cook, still in the throes of post traumatic shock after World War Two. She bears the brunt of the suffering bestowed on the staff by Elizabeth.

There are so many things I can say about this beautiful film and its sad meanderings toward the desperate climaxes, seamed perfectly against flashbacks of a tumultuous storm Elizabeth survives and re lives in her memory the days before her death. The standout star of the film is the novel itself. This is a film that reveres and loves its subject matter. No one has been brave enough to put Patrick White on the screen before.  Judy Morris gives us a remarkable screenplay condensing the novel to the direct interplay between our protagonists rather than try to include all the extra detail surrounding each characters life the novel contains. She’s left in delicious scenes like the cool, calculated woman on woman devastation occurring in the five minute conversation between Elizabeth and Lal where each woman delivers their perfectly timed precision blow at the vulnerability of the other. We also have some of Basil’s monologue, that acerbic observational resignation at the financial (and other) privilege of his mother.

Other important themes remain due to Morris’ screenplay. We still have the social commentary between rich and poor and power and money as well along side some of the observations about Australian cultural cringe that White is so famous for.  The children are meant to do their mother proud in England and in France no matter how unhappy this makes them. The only people that stay in Australia are the working class, we pick up in the subtleties of Morris’ screenplay. Subsequently the children make great hashes of their lives ultimately reinforcing their status as Australian rather than fleeing from it.

Fred Schepisi assembled a great cast to pull of the enormity of this very internal film. Charlotte Rampling is scathingly impeccable as Elizabeth, proving herself to be as much as sexual Bermuda triangle in her old age as she was in her youth. Rampling plays the sexually carnivorous Elizabeth at age 65, including the sex and seduction scenes. Her age nighter stops her, nor interferes with her sex appeal. Geoffrey Rush is wonderful as te extremely unlikeable basil and Judy Davis is the star of the film with her nervous on-the-edge-of-breakdown Dorothy. The support cast (listed above) are all wonderful, the standout being Helen Morse whose faded German cabaret performance scenes are unforgettable.  Fred Schepsi retains and almost glorifies the aging faces of all the actors. Makeup is used sparingly and the full weight of the burden of all that these characters have suffers sits in every weathered line across their faces.

I greatly enjoyed this film. It was fantastic to see a world class Australian epic so faithfully produced. The direction is as fine as you’ll see anywhere, and the acting, just about the best in the world and the screenplay well executed. But the real star, as I said above, Is Patrick White himself.

Highly Recommended.