Touch – Christopher Houghton and the power of image. (SFF Film Review)
Touch is now showing at the Sydney Film Festival
It is difficult to talk about Touch as a film because there is a terrific twist part way through that is genuinely difficult to see coming, so one is left sort of floundering in the first parts of the film, which is emblematic of the project itself; everything, narrative, performance, direction and cinematography is in service of the twist, and therefore sacrificed to this one plot device. While there is a great deal to enjoy, and writer director Christopher Houghton’s work is exquisite, at times dipping into the divine, an emptiness prevents Touch from fully realising itself, largely because of the lack of narrative weight given to the characters, undoubtedly due to Houghton’s fear he will bring on a reveal too early. Despite this problem, there is a great deal to enjoy in Touch, as well as contributing to a breathy excitement around Houghton, who is clever enough to bring his characters into the core of the film and build it around them, as well as build something aesthetically powerful as well as evocative of the films message. There is a lot of homage in Touch, Houghton is not afraid to show his influences (the title image is instantly recognisable) but he weaves these beautifully with his own style making something refreshingly new of the Australian landscape.
Touch begins with the image of a man opening shop, spied on by a woman in a car across the road. As soon as he is inside, he hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a woman he seems to know standing there. The woman is Dawn (Leeanna Walsman) and he invites her into his office and offers her a cup of tea. In return for his hospitality, the woman executes an assault on him, racing quickly to her car and speeding away. We then find she isn’t alone, but in fact has a girl in the car, her daughter Steph (Onor Nottle). We get the sense immediately that Dawn is on the run, and that she isn’t supposed to have Steph with her, but that she is trying to keep mother and daughter together against foes that would tear them apart. Soon, a menacing looking Matt Day is at the bedside of the wounded man, promising to hunt Dawn down, as long as the police are kept out of it. Meanwhile Dawn and Steph arrive at a secluded motel by a highway run by a man (Shane Connor) who allows them to stay without asking questions or leaving ID. At the bar that night, as Steph sleeps in the room, Dawn drinks alone, soon to be accompanied by the local cop of dubious morals (Greg Hatton) who after drinking with her, takes her bed. It is here that the problems for Dawn and Steph start.
At the core of Touch is a beautiful, new Australian landscape, adorned with muted hues of greyish watery colours that seems almost like memory. This is immediately different from the typically Australian sun drenched yellows, browns and oranges, that so identify Australia, the land almost becomes a character in each film. In Touch, however, production designer Amy Baker brings landscape closer to character, forcing the surrounds of the protagonists to conform to the human element rather than the reverse. Environment is affected by perception, in Houghton’s world, and we are constantly inside the way Dawn is seeing her surrounds. DP Aaron Gully takes advantage of the limitations of virtually non-existent film crews and a small camera kit to create an intimacy that despite forced through finances never feels anything other than deliberate. Touch very much comes across as dreamscape, even with its menacing premise and building suspense, evoking a Picnic from hanging Rock dreamy ideal, that is rarely seen in Australian Films these days.
Houghton does have a talent for choosing the right cast and pulling sound performances from them. Leeanna Walsman is given the bulk of the film to carry on her shoulders, embodying the horrors Dawn endures with an understated confidence. Dawn inflicts random acts of violence without warning, and Walsman executes these shock actions with skill and surprise, drawing us deeper into who she might be without our properly understanding her motivations. The camera is close to her face for a great part of the film as she stares into her own nothingness, drawing the audience in and shutting them out at the same time, by looking almost like a blank slate for Houghton’s narrative. Along side her for much of the film is screen newcomer Onor Nottle, who has a surprisingly strong angelic screen presence that makes her mesmerising on camera. Whenever she leaves the shot, we want more of her, her performance always consistent with the promise her face brings. She’s a great find by Houghton and one of the clear aesthetic strengths of Touch. Matt Day is suitably menacing and troubled together, one of the characters that has the enormous difficulty of carrying changes pre and post twist, but he is up to the task, and able to manipulate audience emotions appropriately.
Despite a thinness of character arc, Touch has a great deal about it to be appreciated and holds the promise of exciting things to come for director Christopher Houghton. It was exciting to see a contemporary version of a kind of Australian gothic, which is an underdone genre style in this country, shrouded in a film that is such a continual delight to look at.