Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New Release Review: Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi, 2011)

So Eye of the Storm, the beloved novel by Patrick White (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973) has finally been adapted to the screen. Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Roxanne) directs the film, while Judy Morris adapts the screenplay. Eye of the Storm, bizarrely, won the Critics Award for Best Australian Feature at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival. For me, it was easily one of the most boring and forgettable cinematic experiences of the year to date. Laboriously overlong, technically uninventive, unevenly structured and edited and inevitably plotted, the public popularity (evident through a massive box-office draw on it’s opening weekend) and critical acclaim is a mystery.

We are revealed early that wealthy matriarch, Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling), is gradually succumbing to a terminal illness. She has two estranged children, the London-dwelling stage actor and playwright, Basil (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy (aka Princess de Lascabanes), existing aimlessly in Europe following a failed marriage into French nobility. Both have struck financial trouble, and arrive in Sydney (on request) to pay their last respects, repair some emotional damage that has caused turbulence in the family for decades and try and secure their financial legacy. What they discover is that their mother continues to taunt them from her deathbed, living lavishly and keeping a host of nurses, housekeepers, gardeners and chauffeurs around to cater for her. She is also not shy of passing on her prized possessions to these equally unlikable individuals. 

The most notable of these supporting characters are the blunt, slutty Flora (played by Schepisi’s daughter, Alexandra), who starts an affair with Basil and whose accentuated Australian accent is cringe-worthy, and Lotte (Helen Morse), a Holocaust survivor who desires nothing more than to keep her employer happy, even to the lengths of performing a Weimar cabaret for her. Numerous subplots find their way into the central arc, with none of them serving importance or leaving any resonance.

Rush narrates the film in his most theatrical manner, but it honestly feels like he is reciting random passages from the novel. These passages are used sporadically throughout the film and often accompany out-of-context shots of the Sydney cityscape and stairways and rooms of Elizabeth’s lavish estate. The film plays out exactly as you would expect, and the revelations surrounding the sad, lonely, empty and desperate lives of her children aren’t convincing. 

Amidst her drugged and delusional state, Elizabeth has flashbacks to a period where she was living on an island with Dorothy and another younger man. Judy Davis does not look that much younger (though Rampling does) so it can’t have been that long prior. I have since read that it was in fact 20 years earlier than the film’s adopted present of 1972. It is never explained why they were there, or why there seems to be no-one else present on the island, but eventually Elizabeth succumbs to her temptations and becomes intimate with the man that Elizabeth clearly was attracted to, though tentative to seduce. 

A storm hits, just as Elizabeth’s offended companions are leaving. It's as if her world (the relationship with her daughter, and the love of a young man) has been blown away. It seems, she is remembering these days as both her happiest (the freedom of the island) and most painful memories – but why we are only revealed to about 30 seconds of this story at a time - it really only lasts 3-4 minutes - throughout the bloated running time is certainly problematic. I honestly can’t imagine this novel being engaging, but there is no doubt it would be more emotionally and thematically dense than the film suggests. Most of the sequences feel like they have been plucked from the novel and inserted together in nonsensical fashion.

I cared little about any of the characters or what they were doing, and the uninventive cinematography became a distraction. Schepisi seemed intent on being active with the camera, trying to infuse life into the achingly dull and poorly lit sequences within Elizabeth’s luxurious bedroom. Utilizing sideways pans and gradual zooms to a monotonous extreme, the characters are often oddly framed and the quality of the shot – in the attempts to include two characters sitting at a distance from one another – resulted in frequent soft focus. However, the intimacy of the close-up was effective in capturing the best of the performances. Rampling’s scarred and withered face amidst her confused delusion and Judy Davis’ world-weary frustration and sadness and desire for affection are beautifully realized. 

The performances do redeem the film slightly, with the standout being Judy Davis, who demonstrates an upper-class prissiness and discontent with her situation in Sydney - her reactions to the clientele she socializes with and the state of the kitchen at her mother’s mansion are two examples. But behind this cold, scowling veneer is a fragile woman pining for a love she has never known. We are meant to believe that her love for her brother (and there is hinted incest at the conclusion) has never been found in another man. She evokes sympathy that none of the other unlikable cast members ever get close too. Geoffrey Rush, still in the wide-eyed Captain Barbosa mode, was his usual over-the-top self, and while he was charming, the way the women swooned over him was pretty ridiculous. His fondness for eyeliner and make-up, and scarves, really suggested he was a repressed homosexual, afraid to flaunt his desires out of fear of his public image, and his mother's disapproval. 

I haven't read the novel and there is no chance of that happening now. If there is one word to sum up this experience, it is 'boring'. There were numerous watch checks but I felt like I was watching a mediocre Soap with above-average acting. A lot of the film’s subtle features, and this odd obsession with insects, served little purpose, and I really felt like Alexandra Schepisi gave an awfully irritating performance as Flora. While there are some emotionally rousing themes realised in the end, what this film comes down to is that all the money in the world can’t secure happiness, and if Elizabeth, who feels like she has the right to choose when she dies, has any regrets, it should be that her spoilt children have never recovered from their upbringing. My regret: stepping into the cinema to see this film.

My Rating: ★1/2 (D+)


  1. I watched "Roxanne", which I adore, earlier this year and wondered what its director, Fred Schepisi, had been up to. Now I know! Nothing much! I didn't even know he was Australian.

    "Roxanne" was very basic from a directorial standpoint and it sounds like in the years since maybe he's become afflicted with Show Off Syndrome. Sorry you a bad experience, but I really enjoyed your last paragraph.

  2. Yeah, this is really bland. I was quite surprised to see that he has been involved in so many other projects, though not for a while. Haha. Thanks re: last paragraph. It really was not a fun experience, and there were so many subtle details that were just glaringly off the mark - and I did a watch check when I thought the film was wrapping up. No, only another hour to go. Ugh.

  3. I told you. It felt like a four hour soap.