Fell – Kasimir Burgess lost in the woods. (SFF Film Review)
Fell is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival
The second Australian feature premiered at this festival to convey emotional narrative through image (and I have yet to see The Rover, which looks like more of the same), often stills, using minimal dialogue and relying on tense, close-up intimate performances posited against symbolic referencing as the vehicle for depth, and an image of the Australian landscape as character – something of an obsession in Australian films over the last ten years or so. Fell is Kasimir Burgess directorial debut, and it does come across as a mish-mash of every stylistic shot the young director has ever imagined himself adding to a film, most of which are extensions of the limitations of music videos, but which belong to music videos. A man cutting himself and using the blood to make a circle on his chest can be a thrilling image in a music video, but in a one hundred minute film without proper narrative structure, it looks like laboured symbolism plastered over an arrogance that states “I’ll leave meaning up to the audience.” Fell is like this, a big long music video without the catchy tune, complete with tropes such as a man’s shadow against a wall to convey movement, and the halo off an indoor light surrounding a hooded protagonist. Missing is the suspense that music video’s do not need and in it’s place is a far too exaggerated reliance on the slow-mo beauty of image that so many music video’s rely on.
Thomas (Matt Noble) is a father on a camping trip with his young daughter Lara (Isabella Garwoli) when the unthinkable happens, and she is accidentally killed by a logging truck driven by Luke (Daniel Henshaw) who proceeds to drive off, leaving Thomas clutching his dying daughter, covered in her blood. Luke, torn apart by guilt and knowing he isn’t clever enough to have covered up the crime properly, sleeps with a woman and gets her pregnant, in typically thoughtless spontaneity masked as a abdication of responsibility. He serves five years in jail for his hit and run crime, and while there his mother cares for his daughter, whose own mother didn’t want a child, made clear from the moment of conception. When he gets out of jail, he is determined to start over, caring for his daughter and taking responsibility for his life. Meanwhile in the five years of his sentence, Thomas has been living out his own hellish sentence, leaving his wife Rachael (Jacqueline McKenzie) to change his name to Chris, living in the woods in the area where he lost his daughter, and taking up work as a logger. During this period he is forced to confront his anger and distress, however when Luke has done his time, and joins the men logging again, Chris must come face to face with the man who killed his daughter and left her die in the middle of the road.
While there are many strong talents working on this film behind and in front of the camera, Burgess either doesn’t have the maturity to tie them all together or he is too preoccupied bringing his “vision” to life to take advantage of the talent around him. Natasha Pincus’ script is contrived in places where it should have been workshopped more (the dialogue of the little girls particularly) and the performances, while admirable, do not take advantage of the rage of talent the actors are capable of. Thomas’ transformation is left floundering, so that we are never sure why he is in the woods to begin with, why he needed to leave his wife, and except for a single shot of him cutting down a giant redwood with an axe, he never looks filled with rage, rather exists in a sulky brooding that fails to deliver him as a threat. The woods are meant to be cleansing him of his fury, but Burgess, whose background is in music video, doesn’t know how to pull that performance (or doesn’t know he needs it) from Matt Noble, who is left to direct himself from in front of the camera. The same for Henshaw, who comes through as a stronger presence, but who has more dialogue and clear plot to work with, so we feel the tension of his experience and the complex responses to him through the other loggers. One of the best scenes is between Noble and Jacqueline McKenzie, and one can’t help feeling for Noble as he finally has someone strong to work off. I know children are hard to work with, but Burgess can’t get good performances from the two little girls, with Garwoli abandoned to the angelic and Emily Thompson as Madeline always coming across forced.
What does work in Fell, is what Burgess is most successful for, and that is the stand alone image; in this case his tree shots are beautiful, some of them quite original. Camera work high in the branches is exciting and alive, and close-ups of the sliced break as the tree falls are evocative and thrilling to see. Burgess has that early film making conceit of placing the director and cinematographer (Marden Dean) too heavily over the top of the film, so that structurally the film is burdened by the resplendent image, but that is forgivable in a young first time director (I think) as it happens so often and takes experience to overcome. Fell suffers from the director’s cry of “look at me” and it is too distracting to make a truly fine film, but there is a great deal to celebrate, and it will be exciting to see what Burgess comes up with next.