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Reviews

A Town Like Alice
(1981)

A gritty romantic tale of human endeavour, courage and determination - Part I
Henry Crawford and David Stevens' 1981 acclaimed mini-series improves on Jack Lee's 1956 studio shot film with nearly triple the amount of time given to more fully explore Nevil Shute's novel. Russel Boyd's photography (from Picnic at Hanging Rock to the newly released Master and Commander) as ever pays due respect to the exotic locations and the lush vegetation of Kuala Lumpur and the unrelenting landscape of Queensland. Paralleling closely with the `Tenko' TV series about a band of expatriate women taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1941 in Singapore this production was, not surprisingly, released in the same year. The saga's issues are further explored in the later Australian mini-series based on Noel Barber's tale of multi-cultural love in `Tanamera – Lion of Singapore' (1988); Bruce Beresford's version of a Sumatran war-prison's female choir in `Paradise Road' (1999); and ABC's contentious `Changi' (2001) – the musical (as envisioned by writer John Doyle and director Kate Woods), following the fortunes of six friends in the Singapore POW camp.

In 1948 a young English woman receives an inheritance enabling her to repay a debt to the Malayan village where she survived her war years as a prisoner. Having dealt with the formal setting up of a trust fund for Jean Paget (Helen Morse) and the budding cross-generation friendship with her solicitor Noel Strachan (Gordon Jackson in typically kindly fatherly mode though without the edge of his sterner creations as Mr Hudson of `Upstairs, Downstairs' and governor George Cowley in `The Professionals') the film switches back to events in 1941 as the Japanese invade Malaya. A band of women are forced to march on the pretext of catching a train to Singapore for the nearest prison, though it soon becomes apparent that the motley captives are a very unwelcome nuisance for the Japanese. The rigours of the journey are too much for some of the women and children, and lacking any medication dysentery takes its toll on the rest. Their saviour eventually turns up in the guise of an Australian mechanic, Joe Harman (Bryan Brown), who purloins medicines and food for them and soon an obvious attraction and deep bond is formed between him and Jean. However Joe's kindness and risk taking eventually goes too far and delivers him into the vengeful hands of the camp commandant for stealing his chickens. A bloody retribution is exacted on Joe who is literally crucified in front of the women he sought to help, a thoroughly believable example, and not without precedent, of the atrocities inflicted on prisoners in this barbaric world. Mrs Frith (Dorothy Alison), whose mind is severely strained by the trauma, rather labours the corollary of a saviour who heals with medicines but is crucified for his pains. Echoes of the Canadian sergeant crucified by German soldiers around Easter in April 1915 resonate here, as well as the fictional storyline of a Russian style crucifixion in an episode of this year's `Spooks' for the BBC. November 2002 also provided further humanitarian outrages as a Catholic car thief in Belfast was nailed to a fence and beaten, and an angry Cambodian mother in Phnom Penh nailed her 13-year-old daughter's foot to the bamboo floor of their home because she had neglected her household chores.

Without further ceremony the women are dismissed along with an elderly guard for minder, who expires soon after the women have sought shelter in a village, that is to become their resting place for the remainder of the war and the reason for Jean's eventual return. During her revisit to Malaya, Jean ecstatically discovers that for the want of a cold beer Joe miraculously cheated death, and impetuously she sets off for Australia in search of his cattle station. In one of life's extraordinary twists Joe turns up at Strachan's office in London who gently tries to put him off the trail; however these star-crossed lovers are destined to meet up with each other in spite of the interference by well-wishers. In the interim Jean discovers her mission to build a town like Alice Springs in the dusty backwater of Willstown that passes as the closest thing to civilisation and her lover's home. With her mixture of determination and quiet strength Jean battles to overcome the mistrust and apathy of the locals as well as theirs and Joe's inherent chauvinism.

Continued in Part II

Masterpiece Theatre: The Railway Children
(2000)
Episode 5, Season 30

Delightful reworking of a family favourite
For those of us who were spellbound all those years ago by Lionel Jeffries' vision and would therefore view the idea of a further version with disdain, you should be delighted to know that Catherine Morshead, of the popular TV series `Silent Witness' and `Dangerfield' fame, has created just as much a treat thirty years on for Carlton TV.

Simon Nye of `Men Behaving Badly' fame provides a script that restrains any of the cast from copying the antics of his notorious creations, although his faithful adaptation includes Edith Nesbit's incredibly condescending remark by the mother as she tells her three clearly cosseted children, "We've got to play at being poor for a bit". This sentence is offered as explanation for the enforced move for the middle class family from a grand London house to the country, to a friend's cottage after the father is sentenced to five years imprisonment on spying charges. The 1968 BBC serial believably depicted a little white house of the book, unlike the later productions with presumably bigger budgets which opted for proportionally larger rambling farmhouses that would seem impossible to manage without servants, and not at all in keeping with a family of straitened means. The decision by the mother not to tell her children the truth is in keeping for the period but would seem unlikely in today's culture of celebrity gawping. Fortunately for them they are kept protectively away from school and thus any chance of mixing with other youngsters, so never run the gauntlet of cruel taunts. Thus with inevitable curiosity they find themselves drawn to exploring the nearby railway and its activities.

John Daly (from a host of TV productions through the 1990's including the exquisitely filmed `Persuasion') literally paints a picture in motion of the train ferrying the family to the country by dusk that is in splendid harmony with Simon Lacey's musical score, and an image of W H Auden's poem `Night Mail' is fittingly conjured up: "Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder, Shovelling white steam over her shoulder, Snorting noisily as she passes, Silent miles of wind-bent grasses."

The 1903 period detail of this remake is commendable, allowing for the author's use of 1870's red petticoats and the absence of the starched formal Edwardian capes of the 1970 film. The Bluebell Railway on the borders of the Capability Brown designed Sheffield Park in Sussex, replaces the Bronte country and Keighly and Worth Valley Railway of the previous adaptations. The well preserved rolling stock gets full promotional treatment and the longest restored tunnel on a private line is in no need of a temporary extension, as was required for its predecessor for the hare and hounds race. Incidentally the Rev W Awdry wrote a tribute to the Bluebell Railway in 1963 to add to his `Thomas the Tank Engine' collection with a tale dedicated to the line's first engine, Stepney, a Stroudley Terrier built in 1875.

The Old Gentleman role is perfectly filled by Richard Attenborough in his quintessential Santa Clause mode borrowed from the remake of `Miracle on 34th Street'. Jenny Agutter makes a wonderful transition from her memorable performance as Bobbie three decades earlier, into a different Mother to her predecessor, Dinah Sheridan, but with a grace and charm of her own. Jemina Rooper manages to combine a modern Roberta with a past innocence and brings maturity to the role with her 18 years, as she asks the painfully pertinent question of her mother as to how long you can remember someone you really love without seeing them. Jack Blumenau (starring in Peter Pan at the Savoy Theatre) and Clare Thomas prove very ably suited for the younger siblings of Peter and Phyllis, with touching but not mawkish performances. On first sight Gregor Fisher (currently to be seen in Richard Curtiss' directorial debut `Love Actually') struck me as an unusual choice for Perks and in stark contrast to the excitable Bernard Cribbins of the 1970 film. I am more used to seeing him in a string vest uttering incomprehensible Glaswegian, at least to my uninitiated Sassenach ears, in his guise as Rab C Nesbit, which probably coloured my initial impression. However, I warmed to his creation and he interacts well with the severe stationmaster (Clive Russell) and the rest of the cast. Sophie Thompson is naturally the shrinking violet that she does so well as Perks' wife, akin to her Miss Bates in `Emma' and the antithesis of her prurient bridesmaid in `Four Weddings and a Funeral'.

Agutter argues that Nesbit's desire for a utopian society is reflected in her writing as alluded to in the `The Phoenix and The Carpet', which the BBC turned into a welcome children's teatime serial in 1997, and that, like all her Edwardian novels, captures an innocence that is to be destroyed with the outbreak of the First World War. A further theme of Nesbit's novels concerns time and memory as Agutter cites on the Carlton website, taking from the 'Enchanted Castle', the following: "The plan of the world seems plain, like an easy sum that one writes in big figures on a child's slate. One wonders how one can ever have wondered about anything. Space is not; every place that one has seen or dreamed of is here. Time is not; into this instant is crowded all that one has ever done or dreamed of doing. It is a moment and it is eternity." The plan of the world is indeed very plain when we are young with the clean slate before us, it is only as we grow that we complicate the simplistic. We become so embroiled in life's mesh that by the time we realise what has happened we have been caught too tightly in the grasp of the here and now to extricate ourselves.

This very fitting tribute to a timeless classic that has never been out of print, should ensure its continued popularity for generations to come with both book and film available from Amazon's website.

Much Ado About Nothing
(1993)

A brilliantly lit romp in the resplendent hillsides of a sun drenched Tuscany
Although Shakespeare's comedy is set in Sicily it was filmed, appropriately enough for this Anglo-American production, in Tuscany where large parts of it have been anglicised by the Chiantishire set. As the Prince of Arragon and his noblemen return home from war, Hero is wooed by Claudio whilst her older cousin Beatrice seeks to renew her warring with Benedick, her equal in wit who in response to her enquiry "But for which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?" declares what all reasonable people must feel when love takes over their reason: "Suffer love! A good epithet. I do suffer love, indeed, for I love thee against my will." Unseen just beneath the happy veneer of frivolity the bastard Don John has plans to seek revenge upon his brother the prince by spoiling the affair for his gullible friend. The roles of Beatrice and Benedick are here presented, if not originally plotted by Shakespeare, as the two key performances and how could they be anything other than with the remarkable Emma Thompson (`Sense and Sensibility') and Kenneth Branagh (`Henry V') bringing their dynamic energy to the parts. Such is the direction and brilliance of these two that despite their dazzlingly white garments they have the unfortunate effect of casting the rest of the characters into the shade.

Although plot devices from his earlier `Romeo & Juliet' and later `Othello' are used here, they are less satisfactorily developed than in the great tragedies. The one key issue I have with this play is with the fickle suitor being so easily forgiven by his former love after publicly humiliating her. I would have expected a more testing punishment from the Bard although he presumably decided to leave the original ancient Greek storyline alone, highlighting as it does the double standards of men and the traditional portrayal of meek acceptance by women. His creation however of the razor sharp and independent minded Beatrice is an obvious exception to this who entreats Benedick to kill Claudio for the ill treatment of her cousin. The most telling point of Benedick's high regard for Beatrice comes when he takes her word that in her soul she believes her relation innocent, and upon this his mind is then set to act for her.

The wisdom of the use of some of the American actors has been questioned but Branagh obviously had regard for his intended audience that is reflected in his eclectic casting. The dude (Keanu Reeves) from `Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure' and the 'existentialist' hi-tech Matrix series is a witty choice when he exclaims he is a man of few words, although Don John's character does not possess Iago's full scale of villainy as Kenneth Branagh dastardly delineates in his own film version of `Othello'. Last year's Oscar winning Denzel Washington reliably lends presence and credibility to his role of Don Pedro. Michael Keaton as a ludicrously off-the-wall caricature Constable Dogberry ensures he at least gets noticed along with his sidekick Ben Elton, who borrows from his own infamous `Black Adder' series creation of Tony Robinson's Baldrick.

Fortuitously the Royal Shakespeare Company toured last year with a marvellously funny staging of the play with the superb Harriet Walter as, in the words of the reviewer for the Independent, the "dazzlingly attractive" Beatrice, and Nicholas Le Provost (currently in `Foyle's War' on ITV1) her splendid verbal sparring partner. Although Branagh's version gives a visual treat of the Tuscan landscape and some pretty actors it has to be said that, perhaps rightly and justly so, the RSC production out-acted, out-directed and out-classed the film with its fuller more polished company performance. With such stylish productions it is sad to hear of the latest RSC financial report showing a serious drop in revenues, an affliction affecting all forms of British art resulting from the reduction in tourists following the outrage of 9/11. The resultant if startling initiative by the RSC is to turn to the video games market, with `The Tempest' fittingly to be the lead play to lend itself to the fantasy treatment. Also worth mentioning here and viewing if a copy can possibly be tracked down, is Stuart Burge's 1984 theatre-on-television version for the BBC with Cherie Lunghi and Robert Lindsay wonderfully cast in the lead roles. Incidentally in June of last year Harriet Walter also contributed to the excellent new Faber series of `Actors on Shakespeare' with her illuminating and empathetic interpretation of the Macbeths' "folie a deux" (although regretfully a couple of decades too late for my own O'level script I would highly recommend it to any students of the text), as well as producing her own thoroughly instructive and entertaining thoughts on acting in `Other People's Shoes'.

As a further point of interest the film's title lent itself to Michael Rubbo's 2001 Australian documentary `Much Ado About Something', shown on BBC4 this autumn, on an entertaining but not definitive examination of the age-old question of whether Christopher Marlowe was really behind Shakespeare's genius. Also for the BBC, an ardent Michael Woods earlier gave an entertaining and well-presented counter argument. Whatever the truth, Shakespeare's body of work has had an undeniably profound impact on the spoken and written word and with the translation into eighty languages his influence reaches around the Globe. Amongst its bewildering potpourri of a list compiled last year by the BBC of the Greatest Britons ever, he at least rightly featured in the top 5.

This film certainly makes a do about something that is clearly a fundamental truth of the battle between the sexes. A lot of noise and energy has gone into this production to ensure it remains something in the memory of the viewing public. It is readily accessible Shakespeare and for that merit it ranks alongside Mel Gibson's `Hamlet' (directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1990 and at half the running time of Branagh's 1996 four-hour marathon) though it can be easily differentiated by more humour and a somewhat lower body count.

Howards End
(1992)

Exemplary crafted film of a bygone age
The very carefully considered style of the E M Forster adaptations became a trademark for the Merchant-Ivory productions (covering three of the six novels) that substantially conveyed outmoded worlds full of luxury and privilege, yet are somehow repellently distasteful. `Howard's End' is a good case in point, drawing on Edwardian affluence via inheritance and commerce, liberal-minded progressive women and the under-trodden working class that supports them. Forster tellingly borrows the name of the brothers August and Friedrich Schlegel, leading German poets, critics and philosophers in the first half of the 19th Century whose work formed the basis of German romanticism. With his Schlegels' bi-nationality of British and German, but not the 'dreadful sort' as Forster is keen to stress, he addresses his aversion to xenophobia in the years leading up to the First World War. Stephen Farber argues that Ivory's film technique has the possible limitation of failing to do justice to the mythical dimension of Forster's novel that employed the primeval symbolism of a wych-elm to echo England's past. In the film a spreading chestnut tree complete with pigs' teeth substitutes for the wych-elm, and serves no more significance than as a marker on the way to the garage. Yet, Primeval Man is clearly alive and well nearly a century later with the world stage replaying the events of one of mankind's sorriest episodes culminating in the carnage of the Great War. Wars, terrorism, famine, HIV, SARS and other mysterious killer bugs stalk the Earth whilst the Serbian Prime Minister is assassinated in the Balkans.

Confusion over an umbrella leads a young man teetering on the edge of social and financial obscurity, into an altogether different world beyond his dreams. In a fatalistic manner the feminine household of the Schlegels full of art and literature collides with the masculine and commercial house of Wilcox, ultimately making neither easy bedfellows nor a home for the other. In his desire to better himself through literature, Leonard Bast (Samuel West) inadvertently stumbles into this world and ends up developing an unwise relationship with the waywardly enchanting Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham-Carter). It is after all Helen in the original story who discusses death with Leonard and adapts Michelangelo with the prophetic "Death destroys a man; the idea of Death saves him". Some familiar chords are struck here with the 'sense and sensibility' of Jane Austen's Dashwood sisters in the novel of that phrase, when Helen censures Margaret (Emma Thompson) for her betrothal to all that the younger sister deems cold and stifling. The comparison is further illuminated by Thompson's portrayal of the restrained elder sister in Ang Lee's masterful film of Austen's novel three years later. The double standards of male behaviour are realised at the wedding of Margaret and Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) as the inebriated gatecrasher, Mrs Bast (Nicola Duffett), recognises the gentleman groom from her former life, whilst he in turn will not have the unwed and expectant Helen stay at the empty `Howard's End'. The arrogance and bigotry of the Wilcoxs and the interference of the Schlegels for their disadvantaged friend eventually conspire in his demise.

It is possible to draw a parallel of Charles Wilcox's attack on Leonard Bast with Jordan's culture of "crimes of honour" with the killing in August 2002 of a pregnant and unmarried woman by her brother, after being encouraged by family and friends, and of the stabbing of a daughter by her father as detailed in Norma Khouri's `Forbidden Love', a fate that befalls some 5000 women a year. How can it be that these abominable acts are a product of a society that is governed by harsh, inhumane religious rules? What twisted sense of perspective says it is right to destroy two lives to address a bizarre sense of shame arising from a naturalistic occurrence where `correct' protocols were not followed? The sad conclusion has to be drawn that though the rest of us suffer from his devastation, Primeval Man lives untouched by evolution and is in no danger of extinction.

Vanessa Redgrave is touchingly charming as the naïve Mrs Wilcox who bequeaths her beloved Howard's End to Miss Schlegel, though in none too an official manner which leads to the plot's convolutions. Incidentally the actress has recently received a Tony for the Broadway revival of `Long Day's Journey into Night', and contributed her considerable thoughts on `Anthony and Cleopatra' for Faber's excellent `Actors on Shakespeare' series published in June of last year. Thompson's superlative performance justly earned her an Oscar, yet perhaps the greatest of her career are to be found in her unrequited housekeeper in `Remains of the Day' in 1993, and in her exceptional tour de force as the blue-stocking dying of cancer in Mike Nichols' brilliant if uncomfortable `Wit' in 1999. Hopkins is awesome as the shrewd businessman unable to connect with people, whilst Joseph Bennett as Paul, Jemma Redgrave as Evie, James Wilby (a veteran from other Forster adaptations) as Charles, and Susie Lindeman (`Lilian's Story' and recently onstage in `Hammerklavier') his twittering wife Dolly are all perfectly too ghastly as the detestable offspring. Bonham-Carter improves on her Lucy Honeychurch in the earlier `Room with a View' to provide the disruptive free spirit of Helen that so changes every life she comes into contact with, whilst West's Leonard is a memorable study of the downtrodden that the gods have determined to destroy. The film also garnered Oscars for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for her screenplay, and Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whitakker for art direction, whilst Richard Robbins and Tony Pierce-Roberts were nominated for original music and best cinematography. The same production team collaborated in the following year's admirable `Remains of the Day' that frustratingly missed out at the Oscar and Bafta awards.

The overarching theme for E M Forster, as etched onto the title page of the Penguin edition, is "Only connect." and the skilled filmmakers have succeeded splendidly in this adaptation in spanning the bridge to connect the viewer to the characters in their distant world.

The Perfectionist
(1987)

A feather light drama, in the Australian tradition, of the eternal triangle dilemma
Adapted from David Williamson's stage play `The Perfectionist' the tale is in the video version's title of `Three's Trouble', but the potential for serious drama and true-life dilemmas are given the light touch by director

Chris Thomson for this comedic skit. Williamson, perhaps currently Australia's most prominent and prolific dramatist, also worked on Peter Weir's hugely influential `Gallipoli' with Russell Boyd, the same cinematographer as here and in Weir's latest Hollywood triumph in `Master and Commander'. The playwright is also responsible for last year's simultaneous productions in Sydney and London (his first West End production in thirteen years) of `Soulmates', with Jacki Weaver, also the femme fatale of this film, and Up For Grabs with Madonna. Thomson is a veteran of many TV series from the groundbreaking Aussie outback medical drama `The Flying Doctors' to the American family western `Ponderosa' in 2001, the remake of `Bonanza', and his `1915' miniseries made in 1982 is as much a tribute to the Australian spirit and comradeship as Weir's `Gallipoli', a comparable First World War drama of a year earlier.

The perfectionist of the play's title refers to the husband's obsession with getting his economic thesis absolutely right before publication only to find he is beaten by events, thereby wasting nine years work. Presumably we are meant to take the message that as this world is imperfect and life is ephemeral, then getting your work done and out there is more important than achieving perfection? Of course in every walk of life there will always be critics to challenge either approach, as Williamson knows only too well, as exemplified by his attempt to address his issues with critics in his literary satire `Soulmates'. This leaves the impossible dilemma between expediency and perfection, to which the only possible solution has to be to rely on our personal intuition.

Appealing in a bubbly-blonde Goldie Hawn type of way, to whom she is oft compared, Jacki Weaver (Picnic at Hanging Rock) is finely cast as the wife fed up with being sidelined by her husband and easily attracts Eric (Steven Vidler, `Two Hands'), the Swedish home help. Ironically, Eric was hired by Mrs Gunn to help with the chores to provide her with the space and time for her own studies but soon Eric is helping Barbara out in other ways until he is dismissed by the jealous husband. Stuart's subsequent attempts at more hands-on-fathering seek to distance the mother further until fate throws her into the path of Eric once more. The dilemma for a mother of leaving her children behind seems to be far too easily resolved as Barbara moves in with Erik, who may be a refreshing change but is hardly soul mate material worthy of sacrificing your life for. Eventually Barbara sees what may be obvious on the basis of these characterisations, as with passion muted and unconvincing we fail to see how her heart can possibly be torn. Barbara's dilemmas are a world away from those of the tragic Hester Collyer in Terrence Rattigan's `The Deep Blue Sea' as Barbara drifts back into the world she left behind. Accepting the differences in time and place of Rattigan's London circa 1952 and Williamson's Sydney circa 1987, I could believe in Hester's love as delineated by Vivean Leigh in the film version, and Harriet Walter recently on stage in the UK, but this conviction is absent in Barbara's case. Not for her is her world blown apart, as her counterpart Hester abandons her lawyer husband and the associated comfortable and privileged life for a passionate affaire de coeur with an ex-RAF pilot only to find that he can't reciprocate her way of loving. Barbara on the other hand can't bring herself to leave everything behind as the realisation dawns on her that Eric is not worthy of the disruptive distress. Dante's `Inferno' from `The Divine Comedy' may have attributed the second circle of Hell to adulterers and told of the agonies suffered by the poor souls who enter there, but Barbara for all her intellectual aspirations is blissfully ignorant of this consideration. As a result, in `Three's Trouble' a wealth of issues are glossed over as the story comes full circle and normality is restored.

Of the rest of the cast, John Waters (`Breaker Morant') ably portrays the studious but intellectually arrogant husband, who sees his life as more important than the rest of his family's. His character's development is wholly believable given the role models set by his mother (Jennifer Claire), an alcoholic unfulfilled actress, and his father (Noel Ferrier, `The Year of Living Dangerously'), an ambitious dominating lawyer, who affirm that their son's failure is character building and but a blip on the career of a university medal winner. As the oldest child, the young Shaun Gunn (Adam Willits) is easily recognisable as the future Stephen Matheson, a stalwart of `Home and Away' both as pupil and teacher at Summer Bay High over the past decade.

Some critics might be moved to sum up this frothy piece of eighties' indulgence with the egregious assumption of as much originality as went into the making of the film, but that would be to fail to recognise that all art has its place, and in its time it may have appeared perfectly charming. There is a very strong tradition of capturing the Australian's distinctive humour on celluloid for its relatively small industry but not all of its efforts dazzle, as was testified by this year's eleven with disappointing performances at the box office. They represented about half of the total output for 2003 in an especially meagre year with foreign investment at an all time low, down from $57 million to $4.5 million. To actually achieve both artistic and commercial success is the ever-elusive Holy Grail for Australian comedies, as glimpsed by the likes of `Strictly Ballroom' and `Muriel's Wedding', and whilst it may not be found here `Three's Trouble's' efforts can still be considered to help further the cause.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
(1986)

Excellent representation of Conan Doyle's celebrated adversary of crime
In this Granada television series, Jeremy Brett presented us with a definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The attention to detail was superb with an interpretation far closer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation than previously shown on film by the deerstalkered Basil Rathbone et al. Jeremy Brett's wild, haunted and melancholy performance of the second series in 1985 was, by his own admission, heavily influenced through the personal tragedy of the loss of his wife to cancer. He adapted the role somewhat for the return series and managed to introduce some levity, even though he found it difficult to play a character who was all mind and no heart. David Burke and his successor Edward Hardwicke (who took on the role in the third series: `The Return of Sherlock Holmes') both gave intelligent performances as Holmes' crony, Dr John Watson. Brett and Hardwicke made an exceptionally good team and brought the relationship alive with a believable friendship more than any previous characterisations had done.

The series combined fine period detail and atmosphere to create a very credible late 19th century London, and the dialogue replicated the novels fairly closely. The main drawback of the storyline adaptations and format is that they may have removed some of the exploration into the incisive detective skills of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and the series became sanitised with the playing down of both of Holmes' predilections for drugs and the violin. Unless I am suffering from false memory syndrome I seem to recall someone's dramatisation where Watson recoils from Holmes' ear-splitting scratching, which I now find is contrary to Conan Doyle's assertion that Holmes was "not only a very capable performer but a composer of no ordinary merit". The problem may lie in actually dramatising the novels, as Jeremy Brett himself observed, they are better read, and he described performing the action of crawling through the bracken like a golden retriever as "hysterically funny". The concept of the images being better seen in the mind's eye would also explain why the excellent BBC radio productions of the 1990's, with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams as the sleuth and good doctor, worked so well.

The choice of guest actors was consistently of a high standard and is one of the reasons why I remember `The Abbey Grange' so fondly, with a note of thanks to the director Peter Hammond. The episode notably deals with Conan Doyle's expose on the cruelty of marriage in locking women into an abusive relationship without any means of escape. Holmes is called to investigate the savage murder of an Earl in his Kent mansion and finds that the Australian wife and her maid apparently survived the attack. The two women obligingly give compelling evidence to incriminate a notorious local gang. As usual Holmes' mind is still trying to fit contradictory pieces of the puzzle together after leaving the house when he has a lucid flash of insight and promptly returns to the scene of the crime. More evidence is unearthed to refute the honourable ladies' story though they will not budge and Holmes sets off on a trail as any diligent detective might follow. However, he of course tracks the real culprit down and brings him to justice but there is a novel twist and a very romantic solution. A very rewarding episode demonstrating Holmes' brilliance and compassion to divert man's base cruelty and the rigid laws of the land which surely would have seen a gallant hero hung.

Charles Dickens was also moved to write on the similar theme of a beautiful and intelligent woman imprisoned in abusive matrimony in one of his most enduring novels, `Great Expectations', originally serialised some 37 years previously in 1860-1861, and his earlier `Hard Times' also touches on the prohibitively expensive, complex and discriminatory proceedings for divorce prior to the 1857 Divorce Act. In Victorian England the only married woman with any rights and an independent identity was Queen Victoria herself. Men could beat their wives under law as long as the rod was no greater than a thumb's thickness and a woman was deemed to have no just cause to refuse conjugal rights. Sadly such attitudes are only too prevalent today in this technologically advanced but in many ways still primeval world. Evidence shows that matrimony benefits men at the expense of women and it is hardly surprising that in the UK a third of marriages fail. Indeed, Schopenhauer speaks of a "life force" that brings people together to reproduce, but warns that the chosen partner is not necessarily right for you. The concern for society as a whole should be on minimising the negative effect on the unfortunate offspring who may of course have unwittingly contributed to the marriage breakdown. A factor that is so often blatantly ignored by sensational newspaper stories when intruding on public figures' private lives.

Oliver Tobias (`Luke's Kingdom', also directed by Peter Hammond with Peter Weir) finds that his gruff rigid manner works very well here as the merchant captain and friend driven to the fatal act of defending his beloved from her brutal husband. The disturbingly beautiful Anne Louise Lambert, who fits the narrative's description to the letter, plays the free spirited Miss Mary Fraser from Adelaide. After a dazzling beginning in 1975 in Peter Weir's hauntingly enchanting `Picnic at Hanging Rock', which led to a prominent role in Peter Greenaway's artful `The Draughtsman's Contract' (1982) as well as this episode in 1986, it is both perplexing and disappointing that Lambert's international film career has faltered. Despite appearances in several Australian features and a handful of overseas projects, since starring in Susan Dermody's 1993 largely unknown but extremely pertinent `Breathing Under Water' Lambert has only been seen in a few cameos including an ailing mother in ABC's 2001's controversial prisoners-of-war series, `Changi'.

The exclusive video rights in the UK for the Granada TV series have passed from VCI to Britannia Music so that membership is necessary to obtain copies of the videos in PAL format.

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe
(1985)

Faithful adaptation of one of George Eliot's best loved novels
Nine years before Steve Martin's 1994 `A Simple Twist of Fate' in a garishly modern Virginia/Georgia setting (no slight intended on the beauty of those fine States, but the tale is a frog in a barn in this locale) came Giles Foster's distinctly English and faithful adaptation for the BBC of one of George Eliot's own favourites. With ultimately its optimism and fair balance of life's trials and joys it is possibly more rewarding and life affirming than her bleak tragedy of `Mill on the Floss' or the hopelessness of intelligent women in the all encompassing English novel `Middlemarch'.

The narrative centres on the misfortunes of a lowly weaver at the beginning of the nineteenth century living as an outcast, whose life eventually collides with a wealthy landowner and his seemingly altruistic benefactor. Silas Marner comes to Raveloe after being banished from a close-knit chapel community as a result of being falsely accused by a friend who steals his girlfriend to boot. Marner huddles himself up, keeping apart from the locals other than selling his woven goods to them, and thus he acquires a reputation as something of a witch with his trance like gaze resulting from cataleptic fits. Mind you, he is fortunate in managing to fashion a living out of weaving at a time when industrialisation left the majority of weavers and knitters short of work. After the gold he has frugally amassed suddenly disappears he is mysteriously blessed in the form of a golden bundle of treasure who wanders into his cottage one snowy night. Marner adopts the young girl in the absence of any other parental claim and brings her up, with the pecuniary assistance of the local squire, so that she regards him closer than any blood father. When the squire's wife Nancy fails to produce a child of her own and the truth about the missing gold is unearthed, the squire is forced to bring his own secret into the light.

George Eliot's use of the mechanical trade of weaver with its lowly position in society was undoubtedly influenced by Shakespeare's creation of Bottom who has gentler indignities lumped upon him in `A Midsummer Night's Dream'. The indolent but not wholly bad young squire, with an unfortunate marriage attempting to hinder him from making a new life with another to provide him with an heir for the Red House, brings to mind the not dissimilar troubles of Edward Rochester from Charlotte Bronte's `Jane Eyre' published fourteen years earlier in 1847. It is also pertinent to note that having been rejected by one suitor, Herbert Spencer, as too morbidly intellectual the author made the difficult decision for the time to form a close and by all accounts loving relationship with George Lewes who was estranged from his wife following a sensational scandal concerning their domestic affairs.

Jenny Agutter, the disgraced sassy spymaster in the BBC's BAFTA award winning hit `Spooks', splendidly inhabits the unworldly "rustic beauty" though sublimely goodly second wife Nancy Lammeter to Patrick Ryecart's feckless squire Godfrey Cass. Ben Kingsley, who had earlier won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gandhi and was outstanding as the canny accountant in Steven Spielberg's harrowing `Schindler's List', gives a perfect rendition as the strange and slightly spooky weaver, seeming to even possess his character's protruding eyes. Jim Broadbent makes an appearance as one of the villagers in a familiar trademark characterisation prior to his Oscar winning performance as the devoted husband John Bailey in `Iris'. The role of the older Eppy is taken by a pre rock star groupie Patsy Kensit, who as an actor is still memorable as the sensual and ultra cool, though soon to be iced, personal assistant in Lethal Weapon 2. She is currently starring alongside Nigel Havers in `See You Next Tuesday' in the West End's Albery Theatre. Presumably a fan of both author and actress, Giles Foster later transferred to screen another of George Eliot's novels `Adam Bede' (1991) in which he also cast Kensit.

Eliot's strict religious upbringing that she eventually overthrew gives her an authoritative perspective on theology and philosophy for this tale of pious church elders unfairly expelling Marner from their circle. She also enters into a discourse on the merits or otherwise of adoption, playing devil's advocate that to challenge providence by wanting something that cannot be is to be against nature. For all her championing of social causes, history has not reverted to her real name as an author, Mary Ann (or Marian, as she preferred to be known) Evans, other than for her translation of Strauss' `Life of Jesus'.

Although considered too morbidly intellectual by one of her suitors, Eliot has compassionate understanding and an extraordinary insight into human nature, enabling her expositions on social injustices to be left as a legacy for future generations. The surefooted transcription of this novel paved the way for the masterful `Middlemarch' in the mid 1990's and last year's `Daniel Deronda' (both adaptations from the historical romances' favourite dramatist, Andrew Davies) that brought more accessibility to her erudite tomes for those who may not have appreciated her work before. In a supportive scheduling role that also addressed the oversight in its Great Britons list, the BBC belatedly recognised her powerful influence on the creative world with a drama documentary. Although, rather confusingly with this portrayal, too much was made of her perceived plainness, especially with the choice of the excellent Harriet Walter, who, whilst empathetically delineating her character, rather belies the description. Walter was recently to be seen on screen in Stephen Fry's directing debut `Bright Young Things', and on tour of a few select English provincial theatres in Terrence Ratigan's `The Deep Blue Sea'.

Silas Marner is a tale of the mysterious workings of life and how kindness and love can still be found in someone who has been betrayed and suffered at the hands of an unjust society. It is a worthy demonstration of how life can still bring rewards and riches greater than material wealth.

A Town Like Alice
(1981)

A gritty romantic tale of human endeavour, courage and determination - Part I
Henry Crawford and David Stevens' 1981 acclaimed mini-series improves on Jack Lee's 1956 studio shot film with nearly triple the amount of time given to more fully explore Nevil Shute's novel. Russel Boyd's photography (from Picnic at Hanging Rock to the newly released Master and Commander) as ever pays due respect to the exotic locations and the lush vegetation of Kuala Lumpur and the unrelenting landscape of Queensland. Paralleling closely with the `Tenko' TV series about a band of expatriate women taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1941 in Singapore this production was, not surprisingly, released in the same year. The saga's issues are further explored in the later Australian mini-series based on Noel Barber's tale of multi-cultural love in `Tanamera – Lion of Singapore' (1988); Bruce Beresford's version of a Sumatran war-prison's female choir in `Paradise Road' (1999); and ABC's contentious `Changi' (2001) – the musical (as envisioned by writer John Doyle and director Kate Woods), following the fortunes of six friends in the Singapore POW camp.

In 1948 a young English woman receives an inheritance enabling her to repay a debt to the Malayan village where she survived her war years as a prisoner. Having dealt with the formal setting up of a trust fund for Jean Paget (Helen Morse) and the budding cross-generation friendship with her solicitor Noel Strachan (Gordon Jackson in typically kindly fatherly mode though without the edge of his sterner creations as Mr Hudson of `Upstairs, Downstairs' and governor George Cowley in `The Professionals') the film switches back to events in 1941 as the Japanese invade Malaya. A band of women are forced to march on the pretext of catching a train to Singapore for the nearest prison, though it soon becomes apparent that the motley captives are a very unwelcome nuisance for the Japanese. The rigours of the journey are too much for some of the women and children, and lacking any medication dysentery takes its toll on the rest. Their saviour eventually turns up in the guise of an Australian mechanic, Joe Harman (Bryan Brown), who purloins medicines and food for them and soon an obvious attraction and deep bond is formed between him and Jean. However Joe's kindness and risk taking eventually goes too far and delivers him into the vengeful hands of the camp commandant for stealing his chickens. A bloody retribution is exacted on Joe who is literally crucified in front of the women he sought to help, a thoroughly believable example, and not without precedent, of the atrocities inflicted on prisoners in this barbaric world. Mrs Frith (Dorothy Alison), whose mind is severely strained by the trauma, rather labours the corollary of a saviour who heals with medicines but is crucified for his pains. Echoes of the Canadian sergeant crucified by German soldiers around Easter in April 1915 resonate here, as well as the fictional storyline of a Russian style crucifixion in an episode of this year's `Spooks' for the BBC. November 2002 also provided further humanitarian outrages as a Catholic car thief in Belfast was nailed to a fence and beaten, and an angry Cambodian mother in Phnom Penh nailed her 13-year-old daughter's foot to the bamboo floor of their home because she had neglected her household chores.

Without further ceremony the women are dismissed along with an elderly guard for minder, who expires soon after the women have sought shelter in a village, that is to become their resting place for the remainder of the war and the reason for Jean's eventual return. During her revisit to Malaya, Jean ecstatically discovers that for the want of a cold beer Joe miraculously cheated death, and impetuously she sets off for Australia in search of his cattle station. In one of life's extraordinary twists Joe turns up at Strachan's office in London who gently tries to put him off the trail; however these star-crossed lovers are destined to meet up with each other in spite of the interference by well-wishers. In the interim Jean discovers her mission to build a town like Alice Springs in the dusty backwater of Willstown that passes as the closest thing to civilisation and her lover's home. With her mixture of determination and quiet strength Jean battles to overcome the mistrust and apathy of the locals as well as theirs and Joe's inherent chauvinism.

Continued in Part II

Picnic at Hanging Rock
(1975)

A beautifully enchanting and haunting film
Although the images have stayed with me since I first saw Picnic at Hanging Rock some 20 years ago, the power to instil a strange sense of loss remains. The revised director's version released in 1998 unusually cuts seven minutes from the original as, according to Pat Lovell (executive producer), Peter Weir wanted to remove any pretty romances and speed up the final act. The sound quality has been enhanced and the look improved through colour regrading, but sadly a couple of key scenes involving Irma (Karen Robson) have been omitted. We are told at the outset that some of those who start out for the St Valentine's Day picnic in 1900 are never to return, and, even though various clues are shared with us, no attempt is made to solve the puzzle. Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert), who provides a voice over, based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, sets the tone at the beginning with, `What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream', and the film goes on to concern itself with the aftermath of the disappearance and the impact on all involved with those missing. It explores an apparently idyllic way of life that is not what it first seems, how this false paradise is fragile and how it is shattered by the breakdown of established order. Tensions and hysteria all surface, exposing the suppressed passions that are the reality of life, as well as the claustrophobic atmosphere of the affluent Victorian European life style in an alien land. This theme is further expressed by the virginal white dresses worn for the picnic, which seem out of place in this environment and represent the stifling restrictions placed on the young women. The layers of dress and petticoats the girls have to wear, combined with the various shots into mirrors, as if into another dimension, also reflect the story's many strands.

Russell Boyd's award winning cinematography is stunning and actively encourages you to feel the summer heat. The beauty of the actresses and the sounds of the Australian bush, under the sinisterly foreboding gaze of the Rock, with its blatant phallic symbolism, seduce you so that you will more feel a sense of the horror, as Edith (Christine Schuler) does. The flashback at the end, poignantly coupled with the adagio from Beethoven's piano concerto No. 5 (Emperor), leaves you with a sense of loss of youth and virtue. Peter Weir subsequently recreated this impression in the final scene of his equally outstanding Australian feature `Gallipoli'. I am also reminded of the effect produced by Jane Campion (The Piano) in her early work `Two Friends', where the tale ends in the past when the friendship is at its closest, making the passing of innocence feel more painful with ageing and the passage of time.

Cliff Green's script is not only faithful to Joan Lindsay's narrative but also complements it exceedingly well, although dialogue is often replaced by visual impression and unnecessary details are excluded to maintain the sense of mystery the author intended. However, the novel's literary mistake regarding Felicia Hemanes' famous Victorian recital piece is repeated, which is actually `Casabianca' (about the Battle of the Nile) and not `The Wreck of the Hesperus' by Henry Longfellow. Discrimination is displayed by Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Robert's fantastically monstrous harridan) towards Sara (Margaret Nelson), a forlorn orphan in love with Miranda, who is kept back from the picnic for not learning the poem, whereas Irma's position as heiress obviously carries influence, as clearly on the Rock she can only quote the first line. Sara is shown pity by the housemaid, Minnie (Jacki Weaver), whose own sexuality is realised with the handyman, Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), in stark contrast to the general ambience of repressed desire.

Miranda's sentiment that `Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place' is demonstrated by Joan Lindsay who based her fictional account on Hanging Rock, a sacred Aboriginal site, near Mount Macedon in Victoria. To provide added authenticity Peter Weir filmed at the Rock during the same six weeks of summer. Aborigines believe time is not linear and Lady Lindsay eschewed the notion of man-made time, hence the title of her autobiography `Time Without Clocks'. At Hanging Rock both the watches of Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan) and Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) stopped at twelve o'clock. Incidentally 14 February 1900 actually fell on a Wednesday, not a Saturday, unless the author used the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian, so that the eleven days were not lost?

The open-ended nature of the fable is deliberate to mirror life where we may learn or uncover some secrets but never understand the mystery. Plenty of extraneous facts and unexplained details are related, such as the absence of scratches to Irma's bare feet, yet identical injuries appear on her head and Michael's (Dominic Guard), her joint rescuer with Albert (John Jarrett), very redolent of the `X Files'.

The film is beautifully shot with haunting music, exceptionally well cast and acted, and tightly directed. The ever excellent Helen Morse is an inspired choice as Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the girls' confidante, who describes Miranda as a Botticelli angel from the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, and Peter Weir specifically uses the image of the Birth of Venus. In fact Miranda, Irma and Marion (Jane Vallis), the three senior boarders who vanish, are evocative of the Three Graces, who dance in attendance to Venus, in Sandro Botticelli's Primavera. Anne Louise Lambert's portrayal of Miranda (an ironic reincarnation from her famed role in 1973 as the bed-hopping nymphomaniac in the Australian soap `Number 96') captures the vision perfectly with her ethereal loveliness and enigmatic smile, and is reminiscent of the knowing look on the death mask of the renowned `L'Inconnue de la Seine', who coincidentally died around 1900 in Paris.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a masterpiece of its time, and still rates as one of my favourite films today.

The Railway Children
(1970)

Romanticised nostalgia for the days of steam
Such is the impact of Lionel Jeffries magical 1970 film version of `The Railway Children' that I can well recall the time my grandfather dragged me from my play to watch one of his favourite movies when it was first screened on television. A quarter of a century later as a father of a small boy my interest has been revived and I find myself becoming something of a railway child once more. The number of privately restored railways that exist conveniently to hand, as though to undermine Dr Richard Beeching's efficiency cuts of the 1960's, further help this pastime. Most notable of these is the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, one of the first and best known revived lines, used by Catherine Morshead for Carlton TV's remake of this movie in 2000. The actual location used for this first film was in Bronte country with the Haworth Parsonage passing for the doctor's house, though the true star was the Keighly and Worth Valley Railway which had been reopened by volunteers six years after its closure in 1962. This film was well liked by the younger generation besotted with all things `Thomas the Tank Engine', including `Thomas and the Magic Railway' an all American reworking of Rev W Awdry's creation starring Alec Baldwin and Henry Fonda, serving to add to the ever growing collectable models now available.

A middle class family lose their government official of a father on spying charges and are forced to adjourn to the country in reduced circumstances to a wonderful house that many would dream of living in. Being spared incarceration in a school, the fate of most of today's children, they fully enjoy their privileged freedom and have some adventure through befriending the neighbouring railway line. A word of caution should however be issued regarding the landslide and near train crash, which had a disturbing effect on the younger viewer, though undoubtedly in a different sense to that imprinted on the minds of some older fans. The moment when Jenny Agutter as the pristine heroine Bobby faints dead away after powerfully arresting the train is matched in the lump-in-the-throat stakes when she runs along the platform for the reunion with her father with her immortal cry of "Daddy, my Daddy".

Before returning to the UK to star in The Railway Children, Agutter had spent three months touring the Australian Outback for the filming of Walkabout and being disconsolate about where society was going was unsure of doing the film, but fortunately she was charmed by the director's vitality. He had been encouraged by his daughter to turn the book into a film and Agutter was a natural choice having already played the part of Bobbie two years earlier for a BBC serial. The film provided Agutter her breakthrough first part in the National Theatre four years later as Shakespeare's Miranda, opposite Sir John Gielgud's Prospero, in `The Tempest'. This in turn led to an eighteen year career in the US, with such memorable films as the cult sci-fi `Logan's Run' and the successful horror and humour cross in `An American Werewolf in London', as well as one of her personal favourite creations as the ill-used Ann in Beryl Bainbridge's strangely unromantic `Sweet William'. As well as being official patron of the Edith Nesbit and The Railway Children website, Agutter has been working on a dramatisation of the author's life, and would seem the obvious choice for the role having such a deep professional connection. Sally Thomsett winsomely squeezes her notoriously corseted twenty-year-old frame into the role of the younger sister Phyllis, some six years her junior, and her brother Peter is an ably suited Gary Warren. A very graceful Dinah Sheridan is Mrs Waterbury, the mother, whilst Bernard Cribbins creates a manic porter in Perks.

As a teenager Edith Nesbit lived for three years at Halstead Hall, near Knockholt Station in Kent with its deep railway cuttings and tunnels and about half an hour from London, which is believed to have given her the inspiration for her famed novel. Nesbit's use of her plain initial for her writing disguised her gender back in 1906 and whether or not this was a conscious intention it led to her occasionally being thought a male writer. Why J K Rowling of Harry Potter fame should chose to do the same nearly a century later escapes me especially as the identity behind any pseudonym is easily uncovered today? Possibly it is to do with the tradition of male fantasy writers using only their initials, as in such luminaries as J M Barrie, C S Lewis, and J R R Tolkein. Women writers today surely don't face the same difficulties and social barriers that the Bronte sisters and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) had, being forced to take masculine nom de plumes in order to get their work published, but do they fear that male readers will automatically be deterred if the work is obviously by a ‘girl'? Conversely it is a man, who coyly disguises his gender presumably for a female market, that has written the romantic novels of Emma Blair. Curiously, whilst the Brontes have subsequently been published under their own names rather than their Bell aliases, George Eliot's work has not been liberated in this way. If literature, that previously anonymous and faceless industry, enabling women to compete on an equal footing, continues the current invidious marketing trend of promoting works by beautiful and youthful authors rather than on the merits of the works alone, then how can any other industry ever stand a hope of breaking the sexist and ageist glass ceilings?

The legacy of this film and the book continues with its name being used by a Wigan based pop group in 1984, and in 1995 for the very worthy charity for vulnerable youngsters arriving alone at railway stations in some of the world's poorest countries. The film still represents family entertainment at its best with nostalgia for another time and place enhancing the tale.

Gallipoli
(1981)

Possibly Australia's most influential film
Like the spirit of Dunkirk for Britain, Gallipoli is forever part of Australia's national consciousness (countering the American rewrite of the tagline `from a place you've never heard of, comes a story you'll never forget'), with even a current police special task force to tackle its `bikie' problem being named after the battle. The film is a tribute to the Australian spirit of courage and comradeship further borne out in a survey last autumn of its top 100 prominent citizens by being voted their favourite from a local director. It is a tale of the misuse or even abuse of colonial affiliations and the Anzacs with a classic landing at the wrong place at the wrong time piece of military planning. However, the British also incurred heavy losses (120,000 casualties compared to Australia's 26,111 with 8,141 killed), far from `sitting on the beach drinking cups of tea' as Peter Weir and David Williamson's script indignantly has it.

The compelling poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, together with Lewis Milestone's searing masterpiece `All Quiet on the Western Front', based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel of The Great War, had convinced me as a teenager that there was no glory in war. This view had been reinforced by TV images from Vietnam and I found myself at odds with the jingoistic mood in the UK for the 1982 skirmish with Argentina over the Falklands. At times throughout history a call to arms has been necessary to oppose despotism but the tragic loss of young life is even more abhorrent given the nature of the slaughter of World War I in the countless ill-conceived and poorly executed campaigns in a cause unknown to most of its participants. Viewing Weir's pertinent film in the mid 1980's, concerning the assault on the Dardanelles which resulted in the massacre at Gallipoli, only furthered my opinion. This perspective on life's lack of compassion was recently strengthened by the TV drama `Shackleton' which told of most of the survivors of an ill-fated south polar expedition of 1914 having barely survived the awesomeness of the planet being swiftly packed off to the front line to face man's own version of Hell.

The storyline, rather than being an in-depth study of the military campaign at Gallipoli, develops the friendship between Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), an idealistic and romantic under aged 18-year-old, and the older and more cynical Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), involving you in their lives to give greater pathos to their fates. The two meet as competitors on the racetrack, with a `Chariots of Fire' (also released in the same year) style of rivalry and friendship and decide to join up together, which involves a trek in the spirit of Burke and Wills across a vast dry lake in Western Australia to reach Perth. In one of life's bitter ironies the sprinters try to join the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, and end up in a battle where horses have no part to play. The men are used as infantry for the charge of 7 August 1915 against the Turk position of the Nek, where 375 of 600 Australians were cut down in three waves of a criminally futile attack leaving 234 dead.

Archy's memorable training patter (`How fast can you run? As fast as a leopard') with his uncle Jack (Bill Kerr) is also his last utterance before going over the top to meet his certain destiny. The finale is cleverly calculated to leave us with the feeling of the tragedy of the Gallipoli campaign as well as the sense of loss of youth, (a similar technique used by Weir in his earlier `Picnic at Hanging Rock'). I wonder if the makers of `Blackadder Goes Forth' in 1989 were also inspired by this film as its similar freeze-frame ending would seem to serve as a tribute. It is as powerful an image, though not as viscerally assaulting on your senses, as the opening half-hour of carnage in Spielberg's version of the landing on Omaha beach in `Saving Private Ryan'.

Though criticised for the use of Jean Michel Jarre's synthesizer pop that anchors the movie-making in 1981, I find it serves as a constant reminder along with the more fitting soulful Albinoni's adagio in G minor. Similarly, Bruce Smeaton's organ strains though highly in keeping for the time, have been knocked for their inclusion in Weir's seminal `Picnic at Hanging Rock', which yet again combined the stunning photography of Russell Boyd, with the haunting mix of Mozart, Beethoven and contemporary pan pipes from Zamfir. As I doubt either ground breaking feature could be made as innocently today, using coetaneous music seems foresighted to set the period mood and mindset the films should be viewed with. It is an interesting comment on TV advertising which has done so much to popularize classical music, that recently a car advert used the same theme from Oxygene part II, and though I can't recall the make, it still conjures up the desperate image of a young Mel Gibson dashing frantically along the trenches in a doomed race to prevent the slaughter of his mates. In a parallel vein Wagner's `Ride of the Valkyries' will always remind me of the helicopter attack formation playing this at full volume as it sweeps on a Viet Cong village in Francis Ford Coppola's darkly satirical `Apocalypse Now'.

It is a shame that a few months ago, with such rare chances to see Australia's finest movies in the UK, `Gallipoli' was only screened on the minority access Channel 5, precluding many potential viewers. This film furthered Weir's path of greatness along which he has proven his creative flexibility not only in Australia as one of its most talented directors, but also in Hollywood with the successes of his engrossing `Witness', the inspiring `Dead Poet's Society' and his surreally brilliant latest `The Truman Show'. In November of last year in recognition of his contribution, Australia's film and television directors nominated Weir as winner of their first lifetime achievement award.

Walkabout
(1971)

Landmark near masterpiece of the cultural clash between nature and civilisation
Director Nicolas Roeg's ('Don't Look Now') cinematographic skills and admiration pay especial tribute to Walkabout's powerful combination of Australia's awesome scenic diversity and the sensual Jenny Agutter, and the whole effect is embellished by John Barry's sublimely magical score. I would hasten to add that as well as being very pleasing to watch, enhanced by Roeg's voyeuristic use of the camera, Agutter provides a skilful performance as a prejudiced unworldly teenager, who is naively unaware of the sexuality she exudes whether naked or wearing her high cut school skirt. Although it was a somewhat amusing shock to recently discover that a body double was employed for Agutter in the shower scenes for 'An American Werewolf in London', no such deceit was used in this film. Immediately after filming 'Walkabout', Agutter reprised her BBC serialisation role of two years earlier as Bobbie for Lionel Jeffries' sumptuous version of Edith Nesbit's 'The Railway Children', ensuring her immortalization as an iconographic beauty. She graduated thirty years on into the role of the mother for a Carlton TV production and is currently involved in producing a film script about the life of the author.

On a deadly picnic into the desert a father (John Meillon; 'Crocodile Dundee') inexplicably snaps, shooting at his two children before torching his car and turning the gun on himself. Now the children, absurdly kitted out in their formal school uniforms, are lost and carelessly lose their provisions, except for the transistor radio with its inane babble being another illustration of how hopeless our technology is against nature. Fortuitously they stumble upon an oasis and find their only saviour in the form of an Aborigine (David Gulpilil; 'Rabbit Proof Fence') on a rites-of-passage walkabout. The seven year old boy (Lucien John, the director's son) happily has a child's ability to communicate with the Aborigine despite the language barrier, something his older sister never grasps, deftly demonstrated on their first encounter when she is increasingly frustrated by the lack of comprehension of her demands for water. Roeg crosscuts stunning kaleidoscopic images of the physical landscape and its critters, with the killing of animals and the domestic butchering of joints of meat to give a stark contrast between nature and civilisation. However, given this was his first solo effort, his overworked montages can be a little irritating and confusing, and show off the cinematographer rather than the director in Roeg.

The director emphasises the unrealised sexual tension by explicitly marrying shots of both the teenagers with suggestive trees in the form of intertwined human limbs, as well as providing us with a diverting interlude involving a group of meteorologists. The deeply sad misunderstanding of the two cultures gives poignancy to the film that is its strength, especially delineated by the Aborigine's tribal courtship dance for Agutter, which only serves to terrify her and increase her distrust. Her lack of emotion for their former helpmate is staggering. When faced with a dangling corpse the girl asks trivial questions of her brother about his breakfast whilst pointlessly picking ants off the body. The tragic outcome is also indicative of the current state of Aboriginal life expectancy with a higher proportion dying through accident, assault and self-harm than any other Australian demographic group.

The failure of her parents to prepare her for the change from childhood may have contributed to the tragedy, and it is only on reflection years later, living the same life as her parents and similarly caged in an apartment block, that Agutter's character senses that maybe she missed her chance. It is interesting to note that the children are deliberately English to highlight the cultural clash between the European settlers and the original inhabitants of this ancient land, and I wonder if similarly white Australians would have had any more understanding of the indigenous customs of the Aborigine boy. 'Walkabout' is a far more visual depiction of sexual awakening colliding with alien cultures than that other famous picnic that goes horribly wrong in Peter Weir's 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (which this predates by four years), with its metaphorically implied unease centred on a sacred Aboriginal site that eventually destroys the established order of a Ladies College.

'Walkabout' is as relevant today as when it was released in the era of '70's industrialisation with the Kakadu National Park once again under threat from a new uranium mine on its boundary. The Northern Territory's tribe Mirrar is currently involved in this dispute over land rights and excavations, although mining was temporarily ceased on Aboriginal land in the mid 1990's. This is a sensitive issue as Australia's economy relies on the export of uranium in the production of nuclear power, and Aborigines oppose the exploitation of the Earth's resources for profit. The company at the centre of this discord also operates the Ranger mine which is depicted along with the rock band Midnight Oil (well known for their campaigning land rights missive 'Beds Are Burning') in eX de Medici's 'Nothing's As Precious As A Hole In The Ground', a recent acquisition by Australia's National Portrait Gallery.

Despite last year's rush by some of Hollywood's well-known directors returning home to make Aboriginal films, including Phillip Noyce's 'Rabbit Proof Fence' (released 21 February) about the 'Stolen Generation', and 'Yolngu Boy' which did well at a film festival in Colorado, I sadly suspect very few of us in the UK are likely to see them. Apparently there has not been a commercial success for a black-themed movie since 1955's 'Jedda', the first Australian feature to star Aboriginal actors. If the hope of a '70's New Wave style revival is to be realised for Australian cinema, surely it is time for the industry worldwide to wake up to the fact that a wealth of film exists outside of Hollywood, and that the viewing public may actually welcome some variety.

With the release of the director's full cut in 1998 both the DVD and the video are unusually available for the UK as well as the US from Amazon.

Do I Have to Kill My Child?
(1976)

Public information film that seeks for awareness
Donald Crombie's (`Caddie') drama made in 1976 for International Women's Year, is more of a public information film without offering any advice, yet it has an important role in raising lots of issues. A mother (Jacki Weaver; `Picnic at Hanging Rock' and lately touring in `Girl Talk') pregnant with her third child is forced to move away from the support network of her family and friends to the city where she becomes lonely and depressed. However, even having family geographically near you is no guarantee of practical help, and in fact the grandmother seemed very critical of her daughter. Dianne reflects upon 1950's style of parenting with the painful recollection of the time her mother broke a broom handle over her back. The scenario of an expectant mother with two other children being wholly responsible for them and feeling desperate is all too genuine. To cope, Dianne takes tranquillisers, thereby increasing the tension and further angering her husband (Brendon Lunney). She is harassed enough to alienate one of her daughters after asking her about a school trip and allowing herself to be distracted by a trivial stain on the other daughter's clothes. The husband, although professing care, is very strong with his opinions in an undermining way, telling his wife to pull herself together. It takes a visit to casualty after the baby's soft skull is fractured through being rocked rather too vigorously, for her husband to think of getting domestic help for Dianne, and then only because he thinks her irresponsible as a mother. I would have thought it was imperative to have some form of physical support, and it would hardly seem beyond their financial means if they could not draw on other family members.

Her baby boy is born premature and incarcerated in an incubator that doesn't help their bonding, with Dianne regarding it from a safe distance like `a foetus in a bottle'. Certainly in the UK the attitude prevalent in the 1960's was that premature babies should be kept sterilely away from their parents to avoid the risk of infection, but fortunately that has changed with the knowledge of the damage that can be done to a child's feeling of self worth in denying physical bonding to its parents, which can have lasting repercussions. At least in the developed world premature babies have a better chance of survival today and parents are encouraged to handle them. Dianne's baby supposedly cries all day long, but to me the crying was nothing like the painful screaming I am aware of, and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable infant in being difficult to placate and refusing the food carefully prepared by its mother. Those unfortunate to find themselves with a baby unable to sleep because of its crying can find themselves ostracised and isolated when postnatal groups are constantly disrupted and disapproving looks leave the feeling that somehow you are to blame. An extremely negative outcome from the very groups that were set up to provide support and help.

Jacki Weaver won a Logie for her performance as Dianne, though she never really looked that frazzled or jaded being somehow still able to take good care of her looks, which I doubt would be the reality for many mothers in her position. Managing one child in a family with both its parents around can be tough enough at times, especially with the dreaded colic which certainly does last six months, and sleep deprivation can seriously alter anyone's apparent nature and bring out the devil in them. It is a common feeling that comes with the lack of sleep and constant irritation, that you can reach a point where you feel like shaking your baby violently to stop it crying, a temptation I am horrifyingly aware of. I can recall now with appalling amazement the times when I screamed back at my son instead, which at least released some of the anger but doesn't make you feel good as a father. The only sensible thing to do is put your baby down and walk away from them until you have calmed down, just as Dianne does, an action totally misunderstood by her husband when he finds her sobbing in the garden. How much harder it must be for single parents, and it seems odd in today's society that they can still attract any kind of stigma, when for the vast majority the situation is forced on them through death, divorce, abandonment, or escaping a violent relationship.

I respect anyone's decision not to have children as parenthood is not to be entered into lightly. It reminds you how difficult and exasperating you can be as a child, and how lucky you are if your parents loved you unconditionally. However, where lies the future without a constantly replenishing supply of children to continue to make changes to the way we live? E M Forster wrote in `Where Angels Fear to Tread' that life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor if the same physical tie bound children to their parents, but this presumes all parents value that tie which is sadly untrue, and life's purpose demands children break away from their procreators, to challenge the established order and continue the evolutionary process.

Life presents us all with challenges which we must overcome to make us stronger. The worst thing to do is to give into despair and to take not only your life, but also those of your offspring. I can only wonder at the desperation that tragically drove a mother to the state of mind to kill her three children (two boys aged 8 and 7 and a girl of 9 months) by setting fire to her car in Coomera on The Gold Coast in October 2001. In the ever-busy world we live in with high expectations and the apparent lack of caring communities the most vulnerable and those unable to cope will always be at risk.

VHS video copies are available from ScreenSound Australia's archives.

Sense and Sensibility
(1995)

Splendid Tribute to British Talent
This deft adaptation proves itself as a labour of love for Emma Thompson whose screenplay deservedly earned her an Academy award after spending three years perfecting it. This was in much the same way that Jane Austen polished her six major novels, with `Sense and Sensibility', her first, receiving two rewrites over the fourteen years before its publication in 1811. The humorous witticisms of Austen are cleverly drawn out around the central theme of the need for the women of her circle to find a good husband to provide for them, at a time when the law discriminatingly prevented them from inheriting and they had no option of pursuing a career.

Emma Thompson, radiantly mature for the 19 year old role of Elinor Dashwood, and usually given to very passionate performances straight from her soul, turns in one of her finest to join `Remains of the Day' and `Howards End' with her touching delineation of repressed emotions hiding a broken heart. In a rare departure from her character's nature, Elinor, who is absurdly considered an old maid by society's conventions, eventually breaks down in a fit of choking sobbing that Emma Thompson skillfully prevents from becoming overly hysterical.

Kate Winslet (`Heavenly Creatures' & `Titanic') and newcomer Emilie Francois are superb as the younger sisters (Marianne and Margaret) full of aerial sensibilities and romantic notions, to counteract Elinor's grounded sense. The story develops to encourage its heroines that some balance between these two diametrically opposing views is desirable, in order for both Elinor and Marianne to find happiness in an intimate relationship. An unusually subdued non-villainous Alan Rickman (`Die Hard' & `Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves') plays the middle-aged and almost confirmed bachelor, Colonel Brandon, with a permanently pained expression who is surprisingly besotted with Marianne, adroitly illustrating the mysteries of the human heart, just as Elinor's affection for the awkward Edward does (Hugh Grant in a typical ‘charmingly' stammering role prior to `Bridget Jones' Diary'). The ending is of course neatly if rather suddenly wrapped up in a flurry of weddings, and not before we have been led a merry dance along the path of true love.

This movie also serves as a fitting tribute to some of the finest British actors of today. Harriet Walter (a gifted stage actress with several radio and TV credits, including Harriet Vane in the 1987 dramatisations of Dorothy L. Sayers' `Lord Peter Wimsey', and lately appearances in films such as `Onegin', who deserves more higher profile roles) displays the heartless selfishness of Fanny Dashwood to perfection as she seeks to disinherit the three daughters totally by persuading her feckless husband (James Fleet) to betray his promise to his father. Most notable among other members of the cast are Robert Hardy as the jocular cousin Sir John Middleton who provides accommodation for the second Mrs Dashwood (Gemma Jones), equally as impetuous as her daughters; Elizabeth Spriggs as the well meaning busy body, Mrs Jennings; an acerbic Hugh Laurie as the long suffering husband to a garrulous Imelda Staunton; and Imogen Stubbs as the flighty friend Lucy Steele who foolishly declares her secret to an enraged Fanny Dashwood.

Ang Lee's pre `Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' direction with its cold and hostile depiction of the London society ball, where Marianne is openly rejected by her erstwhile dashingly roughish Willoughby (Greg Wise), is a remarkable study in English class snobbery. His Taiwanese background with its parallels to early 19th century English societal strictures has obviously given him a great insight for this film. The cinematography by Michael Coulter (from those other successful British exports to the USA, `Four Weddings and a Funeral' & `Notting Hill') gives us well-lit grandiose interiors and the Southern English countryside at its best, even in the rain.

The only possible faults with this film lie in the source material where people felicitously disappear and reappear at whim without credible explanation, which is due to Austen's inexperience as a first time novelist, and the grand houses are, apparently, too sumptuous for the various families' social standing. The fabulous three storeyed `cottage' on Sir John's Devonshire estate, which must be worth at least £400,000, is seemingly inappropriate for the Dashwoods' straitened means.

Criticisms are often pointlessly levelled at Jane Austen for concentrating on her own immediate gentrified set, but this is the world she knew well, being the daughter of a country parson, and she has a renowned talent for detailing its mannerisms and customs that still make for a fascinating social history and insight into human nature. The same could be said of Edith Wharton writing about wealthy New Englanders at the end of the 19th century, but it doesn't detract from her obvious skill either. For those wanting that century's social horrors and evils then Charles Dickens and George Eliot are better suited, and if you expect Austen to be modernised to appeal to a wider band of viewer then look to Amy Heckerling's clever `Clueless' (1995) as an American high school teenage spin on `Emma'.

Like many movies, `Sense and Sensibility' was up against competition from similar genre films developed and released at the same time, with both 1995 and 1996 being Austen's revival years. 1995 also saw a low-key but beautifully observed British production of `Persuasion' with the talents of Amanda Root as the doe-eyed heroine Anne Elliot, Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth, and Sophie Thompson, Emma's younger sister, who also appeared with their mother, Phyllidia Law, in the following year's more commercial of the two traditional adaptations of `Emma' (with Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor). The BBC's run away hit version of `Pride and Prejudice' with its truly smouldering romance between Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the lead roles of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett was also released in 1995. For Jane Austen fans rather than dyed-in-the-wool purists, all of these film and TV productions have something to recommend them and I welcomed the various different styles whether being a faithful rendition or an imaginative interpretation.

Screen Two: Persuasion
(1995)
Episode 3, Season 11

Beautifully observed portrayal of Jane Austen's mature tale of devotion
Following in the BBC's fine tradition of producing outstanding costume dramas through the 1970's and 1980's, including versions of Jane Austen's novels, this Bafta award-winning co-production, with WGBH and Sony amongst others, of `Persuasion' (her final complete work published mid rewrite in 1818, the year after her death), was made in 1995 with a stellar cast of British stage actors, many from the Royal Shakespeare Company with numerous TV credits.

The film's events converge on the time Napoleon has been banished to Elba and the Battle of Waterloo of 1815 is still a year away. Among the servicemen returning home is Captain Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) who has been at sea for eight years since Anne Elliot's (Amanda Root) rejection of his marriage proposal. The Captain is now a man of prosperity and social rank while his former nineteen-year-old love interest has matured into a ‘faded and thin' old maid of twenty-seven in service to her family. Anne has lived to regret her mistake in being persuaded by her friend and patroness, Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood, `Heat and Dust', who sadly died the year `Persuasion' was released), to refuse Wentworth as a man of unsuitable temperament. Whilst his affection would now seem to be directed towards her brother-in-law's sister, Louisa Musgrove (Emma Roberts), Anne's only romantic hope lies in the dubious and underhand attentions of her cousin William Elliot (an obsequious Samuel West, who was memorably the ill-fated Leonard Bast in `Howards End'). However, the accident on the Cobb at Lyme Regis requires Anne's sensible advice on how to handle the crisis and eventually leads to a second chance for her. Incidentally the Cobb was to play another starring role in John Fowles' `The French Lieutenant's Woman', with Karel Reisz' 1981 dramatic movie version embellishing it with a strikingly cloaked Meryl Streep braving the elements, ensuring that it will remain a tourist attraction in perpetuity.

Ostensibly with concern over the intellectual inequality of Captain Benwick's sudden attachment to Louisa after the accident, Captain Wentworth makes the impassioned declaration to Anne regarding his friend's broken hearted loss of his fiancee: `A man does not recover from such a devotion to such a woman, he ought not, he does not', but is patently reflecting on his own lasting strong feelings for Anne. Surely it is wiser to recognise when adoration for one person is no longer appropriate and a chance may lie with someone else. The supposed difference between the sexes regarding fidelity is discussed with Jane Austen adding the comment to her argument that the authors who view women as more fickle, have all been men. This last remark in the film is rather improbably but modernly given to Anne, who also makes the bold claim for her sex that it is capable of `loving longest when all hope is gone.' It is not a question of gender but of genetic makeup and whether you are truly monogamous, as Western religions and society would decree us to be, or true to yourself.

Although comfortable, life must have been dreadfully dull at times for the women in this world who could not relieve their tedium as their menfolk would by going off to war. This observation is endorsed by the couple of scenes depicting a concert and an evening of card playing, tinged with amber candle light infusing gentle nostalgic warmth to the proceedings which is at odds with the atmosphere of bored ritualistic entertainment. The different levels of lighting are used to subtle effect here and contrast with the cold glare of Ang Lee's brilliantly lit interiors in his working of Austen's first novel `Sense and Sensibility', also produced in the same year.

Amanda Root (`Mortimer's Law', and as Fanny Price, another of Austen's independent women, in `Mansfield Park' for BBC Radio 4) is brilliant as the quiet understated heroine with luminosity to her face that beautifully transcribes the full gamut of emotions she experiences from servitude to the blossoming of love. Her co-star, Ciaran Hinds (`The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover') is equally gifted of expression, with a barely repressed anger and resentment towards Anne, under the guise of curt civility that eventually he is forced to recognise masks his continuing passion for her. Interestingly over the next two years both leads went onto appear in different versions of Jane Eyre, with Amanda Root well cast as the kindly schoolteacher Miss Temple in Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 version and Ciaran Hinds as a suitably anguished Mr Rochester in Robert Young's 1997 TV adaptation.

Jane Austen's fable may be recognised as the classic fairy tale of Cinderella, of a good hearted and dutiful daughter put upon by her foolish and snobbish father and cruel sisters, but who is eventually saved by her true prince. With great effect, the author adds to the romance her wit and sense of humour to explore the characteristics of the genteel world she lived in with all its human frailties. Nick Dear's screenplay, together with Roger Michell's necessarily less frantic direction than in `Notting Hill', adroitly captures the essence of Austen's narrative to provide one of the finest visual interpretations of her work. Strong supporting performances are also given by the ensemble of Corin Redgrave (`Enigma') as the supercilious father; Sophie Thompson (`Emma') and Phoebe Nicholls (`The Elephant Man') as the far from ugly sisters of hypochondriac Mary and haughty Elizabeth; and Fiona Shaw (`Jane Eyre') and John Woodvine (`Wuthering Heights') as the companionable Crofts.

Obviously complying with its `Beautiful People' culture the original cover of the American video version replaced the demure leads with two glamorous models, as a spokeswoman for Columbia Tristar in California has said, `I guess to make it a little more seductive to us over here'. Nonetheless, it is pleasing to read that this film was well received in the States especially as it remained true to its British identity, and therefore set an exemplary standard in not pandering to an anticipated overseas market by using well-known international stars.

The Remains of the Day
(1993)

Painfully poignant tale of love unfulfilled
The opening sequence with its nostalgia inducing drive along the winding road back to Darlington Hall, hauntingly accompanied by Richard Robbins (`Howards End') splendid musical score, is surely too redolent of Daphne Du Maurier's famous first line in `Rebecca' (`Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again') to be purely an uncanny coincidence. This stylish beginning by director James Ivory (along with his usual partners of producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, also responsible for those peerless adaptations of E. M. Forster's `A Room With A View' and `Howards End') typifies the whole of this beautifully crafted film, based on Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize novel. The gorgeous cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts (`Howards End') ends with an equally memorable aerial scenic panorama of the hall and its estate, whilst throughout careful attention is paid to the story and its characters, and not just the detail.

Told in flashback, the events begin in 1958 with the butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins a stratosphere away from Hannibal Lecter) taking a break from his employ to visit the former housekeeper, Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson; `Sense and Sensibility') to try to entice her back into service for the new owner, ex-congressman Lewis (Christopher Reeve as a typical American, prior to his tragic paralysing accident in 1995) who was previously a guest of Lord Darlington before the Second World War. Lewis inadvertently touches a raw nerve when he jest's to Stevens if his intended recruit is an old girlfriend.

On his quest to reach his old helpmate now in retirement in a friend's boarding house in Cleveden, Stevens has a chance to reflect on his original impression of Miss Kenton and it becomes clear that he realises all too late the missed opportunity. Stevens' failure to recognise Kenton's love for him and his feelings for her lead to at least two unfulfilled lives with Kenton's marriage to another colleague, Tom Ben (Tim Pigott-Smith), also breaking down. Although Stevens' attempt to abrogate his obvious mistake after some twenty years is sadly in vain, his reformed character offers the kindly personal counsel to the now Mrs Ben to do all she can to make her years happy for herself and her husband. This is a salutary tale of a life obligated in the service of others at the sacrifice of oneself. The film's message is plainly about finding the balance between serving others and remembering the duty to yourself, no matter how late in life you come to realise this.

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (reunited from the previous year's superb `Howards End') as the stiff fealty bound butler and the devoted housekeeper, provide us with two of their career best performances, painfully involving us in the tragedy of love denied. The interplay between the two protagonists brings out the nature of the tale to heart-rending precision, shown most noticeably in the scenes where Kenton surprises Stevens reading a romance novel, and when she is found sobbing by him, after announcing her engagement and intention of leaving, he can only insensitively talk to her of a dusting detail that has been overlooked. The visual and narrative interpretations do full justice to the author's artifice of observing the world narrowly through Stevens' mind. The domesticity of the hall is observed in minutiae against the backdrop of world politics, whilst the owner, Lord Darlington (a typically urbane James Fox), believes that Germany was unfairly treated after World War I, and is determined to help `her' regain international standing. The history here patently reflects on Neville Chamberlain's infamous `piece of paper' (Munich Agreement) in 1938 and his appeasement policy over the two years leading to the outbreak of war in 1939 when perhaps decisive action earlier could have altered things. Ill-informed military intelligence regarding German rearmament was equally as culpable as political and religious (especially Roman Catholic) weakness, as well as the unjust Treaty of Versailles itself. Lord Darlington's appeasement conferences and his links with Germany, which led to the term ‘Traitor's Nest' being coined by a newspaper, are also a thinly veiled reference to the Duke of Windsor's collaboration with the fascist regime. Congressman Lewis criticises the gentlemen politicians as amateurs, blind to the realities of the world around them, and urges them to leave foreign affairs to the professionals.

Stevens' loyal servitude is unquestioning of his master's politics (whom hindsight would show was misguided in his pro-German and anti-Semitic stance, rather than inherently evil) regarding it as not his place to have any views. Both men come to realise after the War that Lord Darlington's sense of honour, along with his gullible nature and good intentions were taken advantage of till he became a dupe of the Nazis. When Kenton confesses to Stevens of being a coward and afraid of being alone, in failing to fulfill her threat to leave when their Lordship dismisses two German girls for being Jewish, he can only restrict himself to stressing how important she is to the house.

Noteworthy roles are also provided by Hugh Grant, who for once is non-stammering as Lord Darlington's godson amused by Stevens' euphemistically vague attempts, under his employer's absurd request, to explain the facts of life regarding `birds and bees'; and Peter Vaughan (his many TV credits include `Porridge' and `Our Friends in the North') portrays Stevens' father as repressed of human emotion as his son, but in his case who obviously allowed himself the luxury of indulging a biological need at least once. When during a banquet Stevens senior collapses, his son stubbornly refuses to leave his post, in the interests of his blind sense of duty.

Although this film was deservedly nominated for several key Oscars and Baftas in 1994, it was, together with Martin Scorcese's similarly themed `The Age of Innocence', and another nominated role for Emma Thompson for `In the Name of the Father', unfortunately eclipsed in an outstanding year by Steven Spielberg's harrowing `Schindler's List', as well as Jan Chapman and Jane Campion's highly original `The Piano'.

Poirot
(1989)

Excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot
Granada Television scored another hit with David Suchet's faithful delineation of the irritating little habits and precise fastidiousness of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to provide the most credible interpretation to date. The same production company had also been responsible for the earlier extremely watchable Sherlock Holmes series with the incomparable Jeremy Brett. Although Sir Peter Ustinov gave colourfully entertaining performances in various movie and TV dramatisations (`Death on the Nile', `Evil Under the Sun', etc.) his pompous Belgian detective always seemed too large and gregarious to be convincingly possessed of all the little foibles of Christie's narratives.

Hugh Fraser is appropriately laid back as Poirot's companion, Captain Hastings, in noticeable contrast to his more commanding Wellington in the enjoyable and successful ITV dramatisations of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. A convincing Chief Inspector Japp is provided by Philip Jackson who, whilst in respectful awe of Poirot still attempts to promote Scotland Yard as other than the implied bunch of duffers most famous fictional private detectives encounter. Pauline Moran played the ever-efficient assistant Miss Felicity Lemon. Other than these four constants, a host of guest actors, directors, scriptwriters and cinematographers were involved in the series to provide a variety of storylines and styles. Over the past decade Carnival Films amongst others have also made various one-offs with the same key cast.

The two episodes I have seen recently, and first shown in February 1989, seem to particularly warrant some observation on their themes. `The Third Floor Flat' makes a tongue-in-cheek comment on ‘The Queen of Crime' herself with Poirot losing his bet with Hastings to detect the murder culprit in an amateurish theatrical play, as the writer (whom Poirot dismisses as `an imbecile') does not reveal all the facts until the wily detective on the stage has exposed the perpetrator to an assembled gathering of the usual suspects. In this instalment the motive for the inevitable murder is given as the absurdly flat refusal by one spouse to grant a divorce to the other, a common mechanism of Christie's that is rather extreme and not wholly satisfying. This episode is also notable for a rare display of emotion by Hastings when he is visibly shaken after his beloved vintage car is wrecked, and Josie Lawrence makes a guest appearance in one of her first straight roles after the comic improvisations of `Whose Line Is It Anyway'.

Fine photography and attention to detail prevail to create a nostalgic impression of 1930's London although there is not much evidence of the Great Depression affecting this particular society. There is a superb evocation of the art deco period with the Mansion flats being particularly impressive and similar to those found around Marylebone.

`Triangle at Rhodes' affords Poirot a chance to escape the London scene and his usual crowd, and provides us with a travelogue promotion, whilst also touching on attitudes to divorce. With her boyish husband (Peter Settelen) seemingly besotted with the archetypal femme fatale, Valentine Chantry (Annie Lambert) on her fifth marriage, Marjorie Gold (Angela Down; `Emma') makes a deliberately misleading impassioned proclamation on the ease of divorce in the 1930's claiming she is from the old fashioned generation that doesn't believe in it or holds with the modern attitude to life of `easy marriage, easy divorce.' If divorce was that easy then it is a contradiction to Christie's often used plot device for removing stubbornly recalcitrant partners. Although divorce was a painful experience for Dame Agatha herself in 1928 (with her husband's affair leading to her notorious disappearance for eleven days in 1926, the subject of Michael Apted's stylish 1979 film `Agatha') she does not address the issues with any feeling, only using it as a contrivance, unlike Charles Dickens some 70 years earlier in the 19th century with his social commentary in `Great Expectations', when there was little scope for women caught in an abusive marriage. With Italian troops occupying Rhodes there is some recognition of history as Poirot passes on his observation of the strengthening of harbour defences to a highly improbable MI5 type, ineffectively trying to hide as a harmless Major (Timothy Knightley) by paying unreciprocated attention towards another English hotel guest (Frances Low) holidaying on her own, who in turn seeks Poirot's protection.

Incidentally with 2001 being the 25th anniversary of Dame Agatha's death on 12 January 1976 her books are being relaunched by HarperCollins and the Palace Theatre in Westcliff-On-Sea, Essex has dedicated a festival season to all 23 of her plays.

The original Granada series is available in DVD and VHS tape formats from Amazon and Britannia Music.

Far East
(1982)

Worthy Australian remake of Casablanca
Although there can never be any danger of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman being surpassed in Michael Curtiz' seminal version of the eternal romantic classic `Casablanca' (1942), the storyline obviously provides others with the inspiration to try. John Lawless Duigan (`The Year My Voice Broke'& `Sirens'), who wrote and directed this 1982 Australian production, brazenly ensures that `Far East' joins the ever growing list of remakes which now includes the fair attempt of `Havana' (1990) starring Robert Redford as well as `Cuba' (1979) with Sean Connery. The intrigue is relocated from North Africa during World War II to 1980's South East Asia, to a colourful and sleazy undisclosed setting that is ostensibly Manila (or is it really Macau?), teeming with life amongst the political unrest of the Philippines. The Koala Klub, a seedy disco bar with the worst of ‘70's/‘80's dance dirge and alas without a piano player, is run by Morgan Keefe (Bryan Brown) an ex-pat Aussie who didn't return home after the Vietnam War and, in keeping with local custom, keeps a troupe of dancing girls for the entertainment of his unsavoury customers. Just as in the original movie his former lover walks into his bar with her husband (John Bell in his AFI award nominated supporting role as Peter Reeves), this time a deadpan crusading journalist. Helen Morse as the exotic Jo Reeves from Saigon, whose father was a French black-marketeer, has the excuse to reprise her seductive French accent a la Mademoiselle de Poitiers from Peter Weir's exceptional `Picnic at Hanging Rock', though it is less charming when uttering Anglo-Saxon expletives. In a very different role to Ingrid Bergman's, Jo is rather modernly portrayed as a lecherous lush, and to everyone's embarrassment, she sexily embraces a large ‘objet d'art' at a flamboyantly dressed party, before coquettishly joking with Morgan how she put the gardener in hospital. Bill Hunter, as the mutual friend Walker, is a very familiar stalwart face having appeared in many major Australian films that have reached the UK over the last three decades from `Eliza Fraser' (1976) to `Gallipoli' (1981) through to `Muriel's Wedding' (1994).

After renewing their liaison, Jo seeks Morgan's help when her husband is persecuted by the military regime for investigating the workings of multi-national corporations and their exploitation of the cheap local labour force. Reeves and his native contact, Rosita (Raina McKeon), to whom he seems to show more than a professional interest, are ‘arrested' and held for ‘questioning' by one of the many police factions for prying too closely into the shooting of a worker on a picket line. Reeves is forced to watch the extremely abhorrent rape of Rosita, who is later tortured by cigarette burns, reflecting the baseness of humanity and the depths we are all capable of descending into given the right environment. A disturbing comment on the callous disregard for life in this part of the world is made when a government cover up is unearthed after demonstrators in the country are slaughtered by the military.

Beneath his heartless and cynical exterior, Morgan (perfectly delineated by Bryan Brown), who uses one of his girls as payment for information, finds his feelings run deep for his `frog' and he does the implausibly heroic deed of single handedly infiltrating the unofficial `safe house' to rescue Reeves and Rosita, even withstanding a hail of machine gun bullets, to escape with only a cut hand. In a plot departure the ending is fittingly more bitter and less sweet than the original's, there is no `beginning of a beautiful friendship' as the Reeves make their escape out of the non fog-bound harbour, whilst the fates of Rosita, Morgan and his `business partner', Nene (Sinan Leong) are determined in an effective slo-mo finale which momentarily deceives you. Though it may lack the sheer style and wit of `Casablanca', being possessed of comic book baddies and the occasional hysterical performance, this film still entertains with some very watchable Australian actors, and helps expose some of humanity's plights and sufferings, exploited by unscrupulous corporations to contribute to our cosy materialistic western worlds.

The romantic pairing of Helen Morse (`Agatha') and Bryan Brown (`Breaker Morant') capitalises on their original outing together a year earlier in the splendid TV mini-series `A Town Like Alice', Nevil Shute's epic tale of love from war torn Malaya to the Australian Outback, which led to a grand passion off screen. Devastatingly for Helen the affair ended abruptly when she read in a TV magazine that her partner had become involved with Rachel Ward whilst making `The Thorn Birds' in 1983, and Helen subsequently became something of a recluse, turning down offers for films such as `Yanks'. As a result the film industry and many of her fans have shamefully been deprived of a remarkably precious talent (in 1976 Helen won both the Australian Film Institute's and the San Sebastian International Film Festival's awards for Best Actress for her performance as `Caddie' in the film of the same name). Whilst her co-star has gone on to such great things as `Cocktail' and `F/X', Helen has concentrated on theatre, receiving critical acclaim in recent years for plays such as `The Woman in the Window' (1998), and she is to star in the forthcoming Melbourne festival's production of Patrick White's `The Aunt's Tale' (23 October to 3 November 2001).

Unfortunately the quality of the recording of the video-to-video copy I obtained from ScreenSound Australia not only impaired the sound but didn't do full justice to the cinematography by Brian Probyn (`Inn of the Damned'), who sadly died the same year `Far East' was released. The time-coded window was particularly obtrusive, being unnecessarily large, and I would advise obtaining a copy of the master video in this instance.

Inn of the Damned
(1975)

Oddball Australian `horror western'
The Syme home video publicity claims this film is in the tradition of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but it is played more as a spaghetti western with the typical opening hauntingly choral musical score, and sadly Terry Bourke's direction is not in the same league. The tale revolves around the mysterious vanishing of guests from a hostel deep in the Australian rain forests of Gippsland, Victoria in 1896, run by the Straulles, an Austrian couple. Unfortunately the owners of this wayside inn are simply not as sinisterly menacing as Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's classic, `Psycho'. Originally an outstanding stage actress, Dame Judith Anderson (Caroline Straulle, who is obviously fussy about the social standing of her guests/victims, bemusingly objecting to a whore) gave a more convincing performance as the chillingly malicious housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock's 1940 version of Daphne Du Maurier's `Rebecca', for which she was deservedly nominated an Oscar. Her co-star (Joseph Furst) prior to this, seems to have made a career out of playing caricature mad Austrians, as in the Bond movie `Diamonds Are Forever'. There is an attempt at an ominous moodiness in the guesthouse but it is hardly developed to any great level and the various murders are weakly staged, accompanied by Bob Young's strangely clonkingly unsuspenseful music, which at other times can be jauntily, and even eerily, melodic. One wonders why the victims didn't just simply get out of bed rather than screaming hysterically whilst waiting to be crushed by the slowly descending canopy? At one point the more successful mixture of western and gothic horror in `The Beguiled', with Clint Eastwood, is hinted at when its sexual tensions are mirrored with the depiction of an illicit and exploitative relationship between a stepmother (Diana Dangerfield) and her younger charge (Carla Hoogeveen; `Class of ‘74').

Why the Straulles sought revenge on their guests for the abduction of their two children a dozen years earlier by a ghoulish escaped convict, or why they believed the two pictures they kept locked in a room were really their `liebchen' is not satisfactorily explained. Nor is any reason given as to why disposing of the bodies in the well didn't contaminate the water supply and mercifully kill off the psychotic couple. The coachman, Biscayne (Robert Quilter), who brings unwitting visitors to the hostel, is wanted for murder and also happens to be a horse thief which provides the opportunity to follow a western style manhunt when he is pursued by an American bounty hunter and maverick, Cal Kincaid (Alex Cord). Real horror and terror are missing, leaving only puzzlement as to what else this could have been about, as it certainly failed me on the obvious levels. The actors have some poor lines to work with (after a botched murder attempt Lazar Straulle lamely utters `Die, die, why don't you die?') and they are challenged to do an adequate job, as we are to enjoy it, never finding our sympathies drawn for any of the characters. It maybe that the audiences of 1974 appreciated this style of film making more and its female nudity in particular, although the naked fruit feast scenes are laughable rather than erotic, but unfortunately my appetite for this morsel has been jaded by too many slicker Hollywood movies.

Although the horror may not be pronounced, Brian Probyn's cinematography captures a certain malevolence as well as promoting the diversity of the region's arresting wilderness and lush rain forests, and his work can be further seen in `Far East', John Duigan's colourful remake of `Casablanca'. John Meillon as a bumbling petty thief also gives a brief taste of his future performance as Paul Hogan's amiable sidekick, Walter Reilly in the first two `Crocodile Dundee' movies.

Whilst it is hard to recommend this feature for entertainment value alone it does have appeal for those with a curious interest in the history of Australian film making and its actors. I used the trackdown service from All About Movies for a secondhand copy of this video, although ScreenSound Australia also holds preservation material.

Cosi
(1996)

Zany Australian comedy with a touch of human insight
The basic premise of staging Mozart's comic opera `Cosi Fan Tutte' in a mental institution would seem like a recipe for disaster, but here it is also used as an opportunity to lightly explore some aspects of the human condition. An inexperienced but aspirational, if not exactly talented, director (Lewis) is given the task of putting on a variety show for the hospital's aloof administrator (Tony Llewellyn-Jones; Picnic at Hanging Rock), his like-wise ‘caring' colleagues (excepting Colin Friels as the compassionate Errol) and the minister for health. Ben Mendelsohn (The Year My Voice Broke) in his mainly low-key performance as Lewis is a superb foil to the rest of the manic protagonists. An overwrought Barry Otto (Strictly Ballroom & Lilian's Story) is Roy with his rather grandiose visions who commandeers this project and coerces Lewis into rebelling against his directive, to stage the opera instead. Mark Joffe's Australian bawdy and riotous romp is played unashamedly for laughs, very much in the style of `Strictly Ballroom' and `Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert', rather than `One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest', the benchmark for films of psychiatric patients finding themselves, lacking its depths of pathos and tragedy.

In fact all the various psychoses are portrayed for their potential humour and the extremeness of the asylum residents' conditions are somehow subdued, presumably by medication, to enable them to work together. The `clients' backgrounds are sketchily drawn and we are not allowed to dwell for too long on how damaged so many people become by the behaviour of others towards them. An offensive pyromaniac (David Wenham) tells us how he tortured cats and in a rare serious moment, suicidally depressed Ruth (Pamela Rabe; Sirens) is seen toying with slashing her wrists (we are told the difference between the cry for help and the sure-fire method), but the film swiftly diverts our attention. The central issue of the opera regarding double standards by men towards women's fidelity is touched upon, but not developed satisfyingly, with the examination of Lewis' own relationship and his attraction to the talented member of his cast, Julie, a recovering junkie. Meanwhile Lewis' parasitic `mate', Nick (Aden Young), his ill-advised inspiration as a director, is seen to be a pretentious buffoon with half-baked theories such as `the crucial key is to find out what sort of animal the actor is', and unsuccessfully tries to make a cuckold of him.

This production is graced by the talents of two rising Hollywood stars both from Muriel's Wedding: Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie) as Lewis' girlfriend Lucy; and a reincarnated slender siren Toni Collette as Julie (who played the plump maiden Harriet Smith in the 1996 version of Jane Austen's `Emma', as well as the more dramatically challenging role of the younger Lilian in `Lilian's Story'). Her singing voice is also a revelation when she saves the show from complete collapse with her rendition of `Stand By Me', and covers the closing credits with Neil Finn's `Don't Dream It's Over'. Jacki Weaver (Picnic at Hanging Rock & Caddie) as Cherry, who has an unwelcome crush on Lewis, crosses the line from bubbly blonde to be so scarily aggressive that one wonders if she ever succeeded with her apparent nymphomania, and she also provides the vocals for some of the film's songs. Ellery Ryan's efficient cinematography can currently be seen on the small screen in the UK in the entertaining Australian adult soap `The Secret Life of Us'.

Despite any reservations there might be about the suitability of the subject matter for comedy the actors eventually infuse their characters with some warmth and optimism. I found myself laughing almost inspite of myself due to the quality of the performances and some stagy comic moments that were plain silly and at times ridiculously over the top but still involuntarily forced me to smile. For instance, as things on the stage go increasingly wrong Roy and Lewis are electrocuted, Cherry is hoisted on a hook and flies over the audience's heads like some grotesque banshee, whilst Zac (Colin Hay), the off-the-wall musical accompanist, is abruptly halted in his obsessive desire to play Wagner's `Ride of the Valkyries' on an accordion, when he falls through a trap door. Some members of the cast from `Babe' also seem to have inadvertently wandered onto the wrong set, as piglets surreally crop up in various scenes. Even the disturbing comment on the automatic heavy sedation of a struggling patient (in this case the hapless Lewis mistaken for the escaped pyromaniac) is given a comic turn. Other reviewers have suggested that Louis Nowra's original stage play was more spontaneous and uproariously funny but this version, for which he wrote the screenplay, still worked for me. Balance in life is always needed and in our intolerant world where the ephemeral nature of life was brought harshly home to us all with last week's atrocities in the USA, this was a welcome tonic.

If you are able to ignore the implausibility of it all, and to see a group of socially challenged individuals overcoming some of their problems to step out of themselves, if only for a brief moment on the stage, then you may still find your spirit uplifted and enjoy this as I did.

I obtained a VHS (PAL) copy from The Video Shift as this is no longer available from the ScreenSound Shop.

Napoleon
(1995)

Charming and educational Australian live animal film
This is a charming saga of a young puppy called Muffin who longs for adventure as his wild dog alter ego Napoleon. After he escapes from the Sydney suburbs in a hot air balloon conveniently provided by a children's party, we follow Napoleon into the stunning Australian outback where he has many adventures. Napoleon makes friends along the way including Birdo (a galah) who becomes his guide, as well as encountering enemies such as a demented cat who regards all other mammals as mice to be killed. This is a very useful educational film and morality tale with the journey into the `Red Center' of Australia being a metaphor for Napoleon's exploration into himself. Unless we follow our dreams and examine ourselves we might never know what we are capable of. Napoleon overcomes his fear of water to swim and gains maturity through performing a heroic rescue. Eventually he finds he has been brave and wild all along and can return home a more fulfilled pup.

This was the first Australian live animal movie, where any humans shown are purely secondary, and it makes full use of its country's unique menagerie of creatures. In fact I was reminded of the Walt Disney wild life films of my childhood, though unfortunately this feature lacked the same marketing power. It is good to see the live action of the animals without the animatronics of Babe, and the director (Mario Andreacchio) cleverly makes use of the 64 puppies needed in the making of the film to match the appropriate expressions.

The human voices mainly accord well with their animal counterparts, with some wonderful and famous ones, including Joan Rivers and Barry Humphries' Dame Edna Everage. Anne Louise Lambert (Picnic at Hanging Rock), especially, displays the versatility of her silken voice as a very peeved spider whose web is destroyed by Napoleon; as well as a tremulous earless wallaby terrified of domestic animals; and as an anxious desert mouse. There is some wit in the tale that shows the makers had in mind who else would be watching this film along with its target younger audience, and the songs are pleasant if not exactly memorable.

The perceived scary moments for the very young ones, such as Napoleon's encounters with the deranged cat, may be unfounded as my 2½ year old son watched this with interest without being terrified, but then he has a natural love of animals. Although the dogs struggling in the flood did concern him, a train crash in Thomas the Tank Engine and the snowstorm in ‘Tigger the Movie' caused him more emotional distress. He was as equally confused as Napoleon at the sounds of a wild dog barking that turned out to be a perenti lizard doing animal impressions.

However, the dingo pups are probably portrayed as too cute (witness the tragic mauling to death of Clinton Gage, a nine year old boy, by a couple of wild dogs on Fraser Island in Queensland in May 2001) and perversely the most ferocious looking animal is a domestic cat. A healthy respect for wild animals must be encouraged so that we recognise that we are living in their environment, and that they as well as household pets will behave unpredictably. The senseless culling of animals in retaliation is never an answer. Co-existence is the way forward, not extermination.

In the UK VHS (PAL) copies of this film can be obtained from Britannia Music.

Caddie
(1976)

True-life account of an admirably resilient woman
This autobiographical account of the life of Catherine Elliot-Mackay, who styled herself as a Sydney barmaid, begins with Caddie (so named by an admirer after the beauty and class of his new Cadillac) leaving her adulterous and brutish husband and taking her two children with her. This was a particularly brave and uncommon thing to do in 1925 when she had no one else to turn to for financial support. The film chooses to omit the early years of Caddie's life with a cruel father, but as so often in life it indicates how a child who suffers abuse can choose unwisely in marriage and end up reliving the horrors. Her husband has no concern for her welfare and when Caddie is determined to take her children he makes no attempt to maintain them. Forced to find work as a barmaid in the bear pit of a pub, in stark contrast to her former employ as a waitress, she struggles to survive its perplexing social status, as well as the intolerance of her children by selfish shortsighted adults.

Superbly cast as the resilient yet beautiful and classy Caddie, Helen Morse's (Picnic at Hanging Rock) performance clearly demonstrates why she is one of Australia's finest actors. Having won the Australian Film Institute's Best Actress award for this role in 1976, and in recent years received critical acclaim for her contributions to Australian theatre, it is a disappointing shame that she has not made any films since 1982 (Far East). Takis Emmanuel is the sensitive and kind Greek businessman who falls for Caddie and gives her a season of happiness, and in his case rebuffs the concern that Caddie has with men losing their respect for the women they sleep with. The able supporting cast includes Jacki Weaver (Picnic at Hanging Rock), also a successful stage actress, who won an AFI award for her role as a colleague who undergoes a back-street abortion after being abandoned by the father of her child, and the often-dire consequences are touched upon. Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant) is the snappily dressed card who gives Caddie her name.

Despite Caddie's tribulations through the Great Depression years, Donald Crombie's film never appears as bleak or oppressive as it could have done. Instead it chooses to make its points in a calm and measured way, to the strains of mournful jazz, in a languid style that is obviously from a period long past. It illustrates the injustices of life to a woman driven to leave her home and the financial security of her marriage, and the humiliations she suffered to earn enough to support her children. Even at the heartbreaking moment when Caddie is forced to place her son and daughter in separate children's homes the film avoids Hollywood schmaltz, as Caddie purposely walks away from them, only then briefly allowing the tears to well up in her eyes. Apparently she never let her children see her cry. When she does reclaim her children from the church homes she finds her new job lost and her accommodation under threat, and consequently, against her sense of pride, is forced to seek help from the State. Fate has a cruel twist for Caddie when she does find someone who truly loves her, he is called back to his home country by an ailing father. Without her divorce finalised Caddie cannot follow him to Greece for fear of losing custody of her children, and there is a tragic footnote to the film.

Caddie's story is Dickensian in its proportions and her trials would have sorely tried the patience of Job. She was a tough and determined character who had her unfair share of hardships, yet always showed her love for her children and put their welfare first, even at the expense of her personal happiness. Ultimately it is a tale of a woman to be admired.

I obtained a secondhand copy via Videoshift as the video was last released in 1993, or you could try ScreenSound Australia's archives.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
(1975)

A beautifully enchanting and haunting film
Although the images have stayed with me since I first saw Picnic at Hanging Rock some 20 years ago, the power to instil a strange sense of loss remains. The revised director's version released in 1998 unusually cuts seven minutes from the original as, according to Pat Lovell (executive producer), Peter Weir wanted to remove any pretty romances and speed up the final act. The sound quality has been enhanced and the look improved through colour regrading, but sadly a couple of key scenes involving Irma (Karen Robson) have been omitted. We are told at the outset that some of those who start out for the St Valentine's Day picnic in 1900 are never to return, and, even though various clues are shared with us, no attempt is made to solve the puzzle. Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert), who provides a voice over, based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, sets the tone at the beginning with, `What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream', and the film goes on to concern itself with the aftermath of the disappearance and the impact on all involved with those missing. It explores an apparently idyllic way of life that is not what it first seems, how this false paradise is fragile and how it is shattered by the breakdown of established order. Tensions and hysteria all surface, exposing the suppressed passions that are the reality of life, as well as the claustrophobic atmosphere of the affluent Victorian European life style in an alien land. This theme is further expressed by the virginal white dresses worn for the picnic, which seem out of place in this environment and represent the stifling restrictions placed on the young women. The layers of dress and petticoats the girls have to wear, combined with the various shots into mirrors, as if into another dimension, also reflect the story's many strands.

Russell Boyd's award winning cinematography is stunning and actively encourages you to feel the summer heat. The beauty of the actresses and the sounds of the Australian bush, under the sinisterly foreboding gaze of the Rock, with its blatant phallic symbolism, seduce you so that you will more feel a sense of the horror, as Edith (Christine Schuler) does. The flashback at the end, poignantly coupled with the adagio from Beethoven's piano concerto No. 5 (Emperor), leaves you with a sense of loss of youth and virtue. Peter Weir subsequently recreated this impression in the final scene of his equally outstanding Australian feature `Gallipoli'. I am also reminded of the effect produced by Jane Campion (The Piano) in her early work `Two Friends', where the tale ends in the past when the friendship is at its closest, making the passing of innocence feel more painful with ageing and the passage of time.

Cliff Green's script is not only faithful to Joan Lindsay's narrative but also complements it exceedingly well, although dialogue is often replaced by visual impression and unnecessary details are excluded to maintain the sense of mystery the author intended. However, the novel's literary mistake regarding Felicia Hemanes' famous Victorian recital piece is repeated, which is actually `Casabianca' (about the Battle of the Nile) and not `The Wreck of the Hesperus' by Henry Longfellow. Discrimination is displayed by Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Robert's fantastically monstrous harridan) towards Sara (Margaret Nelson), a forlorn orphan in love with Miranda, who is kept back from the picnic for not learning the poem, whereas Irma's position as heiress obviously carries influence, as clearly on the Rock she can only quote the first line. Sara is shown pity by the housemaid, Minnie (Jacki Weaver), whose own sexuality is realised with the handyman, Tom (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), in stark contrast to the general ambience of repressed desire.

Miranda's sentiment that `Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place' is demonstrated by Joan Lindsay who based her fictional account on Hanging Rock, a sacred Aboriginal site, near Mount Macedon in Victoria. To provide added authenticity Peter Weir filmed at the Rock during the same six weeks of summer. Aborigines believe time is not linear and Lady Lindsay eschewed the notion of man-made time, hence the title of her autobiography `Time Without Clocks'. At Hanging Rock both the watches of Ben Hussey (Martin Vaughan) and Greta McCraw (Vivean Gray) stopped at twelve o'clock. Incidentally 14 February 1900 actually fell on a Wednesday, not a Saturday, unless the author used the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian, so that the eleven days were not lost?

The open-ended nature of the fable is deliberate to mirror life where we may learn or uncover some secrets but never understand the mystery. Plenty of extraneous facts and unexplained details are related, such as the absence of scratches to Irma's bare feet, yet identical injuries appear on her head and Michael's (Dominic Guard), her joint rescuer with Albert (John Jarrett), very redolent of the `X Files'.

The film is beautifully shot with haunting music, exceptionally well cast and acted, and tightly directed. The ever excellent Helen Morse is an inspired choice as Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the girls' confidante, who describes Miranda as a Botticelli angel from the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, and Peter Weir specifically uses the image of the Birth of Venus. In fact Miranda, Irma and Marion (Jane Vallis), the three senior boarders who vanish, are evocative of the Three Graces, who dance in attendance to Venus, in Sandro Botticelli's Primavera. Anne Louise Lambert's portrayal of Miranda (an ironic reincarnation from her famed role in 1973 as the bed-hopping nymphomaniac in the Australian soap `Number 96') captures the vision perfectly with her ethereal loveliness and enigmatic smile, and is reminiscent of the knowing look on the death mask of the renowned `L'Inconnue de la Seine', who coincidentally died around 1900 in Paris.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a masterpiece of its time, and still rates as one of my favourite films today.

Stone
(1974)

Alternative Australian Nostalgia
The fairly basic plot follows the assassination of an environmentalist MP witnessed by a member of the GraveDiggers `motorcycle club', and the subsequent demise of various bikers as the inept hitman attempts to erase the witness. Unfortunately Stone (Ken Shorter) is not particularly convincing as an undercover cop sent to infiltrate the gang and solve the murders. His first scene ludicrously depicts him riding to meet the GraveDiggers dressed as some kind of white knight, and he fatuously asks the question in the bar `D'ya sell beer here?' The GraveDiggers discuss their philosophy and their own set of rules and when Stone transgresses their code he suffers the gang's bloody vengeance. The level of violence is expected but shown in a clumsy mechanised way firmly rooted to 70's style movie making. For the enthusiast the bikes are given plenty of opportunities to shine, including the highly original Gosford Expressway funeral procession and the low level shots of a street race, and Sydney's suburbs and coastline receive the scenic treatment.

Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock; Caddie) in one of her earliest film roles, gives one of the more credible performances as Stone's rather sexy high society girlfriend who objects to having to share him with his cause of `fearless gang busting', and she is also credited along with Margaret Ure for the costume designs.

Sandy Harbutt's quirky cult film (he also cast himself as the Undertaker) has obviously dated with its 1970's bikes, fashions, psychedelic rock music and colourful language (`I told you to keep your spanners off our molls'), and its authenticity in depicting `bikie gangs' maybe only slightly more believable than the Hell's Angels in the Clint Eastwood orangutan comedies (especially Any Which Way You Can). The recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald (3/9/01) of the Perth car-bomb killing of a former West Australian policeman embroiled in a dispute with bikie gangs, believed to be an act of retribution, illustrates the true menace. The real life intrigue involved a gang member being shot by a sniper soon after the ex-policeman had evicted him from his hotel, which was subsequently blown up. A spokesman for the NSW police stated that when it comes to organised crime, the bikie gangs are "the single biggest threat" confronting them and the community, and that compared to youth gangs and other crime syndicates, the bikies are "clearly more organised, ruthless, hierarchical and controlled in their organisation."

However, Stone remains an interesting piece of Australian nostalgia and justifiably a classic for its subject and style, rather than as a polished thriller, with youthful performances by some of Australia's seasoned actors.

The ScreenSound (Australia) Shop has commercial copies of the video for sale.

Breathing Under Water
(1991)

Extremely pertinent film for our time
Breathing Under Water's concerns are conditioned very much by Reagan-era nuclear fears, and its relevance is especially apposite at this time now that 'star wars' scenarios are once again on the world's agenda.

A mother is inspired by Dante Alighieri's mid-life exploration of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in `The Divine Comedy', to find answers to the riddle as to why humankind has set the stage for its own extinction. Fear as much as yearning pushes her off onto the journey with her young daughter, to an imaginary world beneath Sydney where she follows a sketch map from her dreams. Beatrice expresses every parent's experience upon the birth of her daughter that `she shook up the whole pattern of my life bringing everything into question, a necessary and appalling process'. In order to answer her daughter's questions she recognises the need to get beyond the narrow maze of mind we all start to live in after childhood. Anne Louise Lambert (Picnic at Hanging Rock) is brilliantly cast as the ‘divine Beatrice' (whose namesake was Dante's true love, inspiration and spiritual guide in Paradise) who we follow on the allegorical tour. Her own guide is Herman (Kristoffer Greaves), `a trickster, a shyster' and an unusually taciturn taxi driver. The film revolves around a potent mixture of history, science, philosophy, poetry, art, animation, and narration combined with personal recollections and dreams. Reference is made to the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre where a student stood in front of the tanks with a carrier bag. This symbol of protest is taken up and Beatrice is given a magical red shopping bag that provides various gifts on the excursion.

The issues around the birth of the Bomb are very gender specific with the masculine identities of Little Boy, George and Mike, and contrast with `the old and badly rotting idea that mind is male and female is suspect'. The question is raised as to how Enola Gay, the mother of Colonel Paul Tibbets (the pilot), felt about her name being used for the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945? A journalist's description of the nuclear mushroom cloud following the dropping of Fat Man on Nagasaki three days later is given and correlated to a childhood dream of babies being fed into a machine and turned into beautiful ribbons, `Much living substance had gone into those rainbows'. Over 210,000 people died in Japan by the end of the first year following the bombing with the legacy of radiation ensuring genetic deformities and cancer would claim the lives of thousands more, not to mention the loss of other life forms. Why is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty being dismantled and the world being encouraged to divert billions of dollars away from social projects towards building weapons of mass destruction, if they are never meant to be used? There is a distinct possibility (however small, it is not zero) that Europe could be in the direct firing line should a defence shield shoot down, but fail to destroy, an aggressor's missile over its skies. The worrying comment is made in the film `By what miracle of disbelief is it possible always to feel that the bomb is not so much physical as political until it falls, that it does not matter?'

Various insights on the human condition are expressed and the question asked, `Why is technology so bent upon the depletion of time, the acceleration of objects, and the inertia of people?' Man's uniqueness to be burdened by history, shame, and self-hatred is stressed as well as our bizarre attitude to nature and the wild with our attempts to control them by fencing them within wilderness parks. The plight of motherhood is also observed with the concern for the outcome of their so innocent and good offspring as they grow: `That slight awful constant undertow of doubt about the goodness of this most good object, this extremely perfect object, which causes it so readily to turn into a bad one.'

The optimistic ending in 1993 for Beatrice, in remembering her childhood dream of a black panther and strange foreigners invading her home, and the ultimate shift in her dream of making peace with the creature of the night and finding harmony in her life, may be challenged if the arms race is escalated once again. For all our sakes and the future of our children I sincerely hope reasoned argument triumphs over paranoid fear.

VHS video copies can be obtained from archive material held by ScreenSound Australia.

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