Film Reviews

The Eye of the Storm

Published September 17, 2011
The Eye of the Storm

There is a powerful nostalgia for the 1970s in Fred Schepisi’s film adaptation of The Eye of the Storm. The novel appeared in 1973, the same year that Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I read it when I was a teenager, but still remember the impressively awful Elizabeth Hunter – an invalid dictator, surrounded by a fearful, grotesque cast of characters that she has helped bring into being.
Charlotte Rampling is not quite the monster that one expects from Elizabeth, although she is very good at playing the role of an aging woman who can’t quite subdue her libido. She has played this roles for Francois Ozon in a movie such as The Swimming Pool, but in Eye of the Storm her escapades are only in the form of disquieting flashbacks as the dying Elizabeth trawls back over her life.
Rampling is the most exotic element in a film that feels like a homage to those golden days of the Australian cinema when directors such as Schepisi, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford where making their early features, and actors such as Judy Morris, Helen Morse and Judy Davis made frequent appearances on the large and small screens.
With The Eye of the Storm Judy Morris wrote the screenplay; Judy Davis plays the part of Elizabeth’s daughter, Dorothy, AKA. the Princess de Lascabanes, while Helen Morse takes the role of the German housekeeper, Lotte Lippmann, complete with outrrrageous ackzent. Allowing for Maria Theodorakis and Alexandra Schepisi as the nurses, the rest of the cast reads like a Who’s Who of the Australian stage and screen. Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth’s son, (Sir) Basil, is cast in the congenial role of a ham actor. Colin Friels plays Athol Shreve, would-be Prime-Minister and full time lecher, in a ghastly parody of Bob Hawke. Then there’s John Gaden as the lawyer Arnold Wyburd, and Robyn Nevin as his wife, Lal.
The cinematography is an ode to Sydney, even though the indoor scenes were filmed at Ripon Lea House in Melbourne. When Basil’s ferry pauses in front of the grinning face that adorns the entrance to Luna Park, it seems like a comment on the false jollity he habitually displays. We see him strolling across the forecourt of the Opera House, while Dorothy sits in the Botanical Gardens.
The story is a series of psychological twists, as Elizabeth’s two children return home to see their wealthy, dying mother and ask some salient questions. Is she still compos mentis? Would she be better off in a nursing home? Is she being exploited by the staff?
In this scenario everyone is busy exploiting someone else, with the possible exception of Arnold Wyburd, an honorable man, although not without his own skeletons in the closet.
The dialogue is slightly stilted in a way that should be familiar to readers of Patrick White. The characters all verge on caricature, being ‘types’ rather than fully rounded personalities. This too is a familiar trait of White’s fiction: the way that each figure has to shoulder the burden of a horribly complex inner life while speaking and acting in a superficial manner. In White’s universe we are all masques, struggling to hide our feelings and desires from each other.
Judy Morris has understood this aspect of the book, and her script captures the lingering awkwardness that seems to distinguish all human interaction in a White novel. The actors are also in tune with the characters’ inability to rest easily within their own skins. The viewer is made to feel like a voyeur, spying on the serial embarrassments that underpin the most casual contacts.
This could have been a psycho-drama straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s back catalogue, but instead of Cries and Whispers, we get something much more gentle, even redemptive. This is partly to do with Schepisi’s lyrical approach, which never lets the drama get overheated. Certain parts of the story have been altered in ways that moderate the bleakness of White’s novel. Apart from the amateur cabaret numbers Lotte performs at the foot of Elizabeth’s bed, there is no dramatic music, only a cool, jazz-inflected score by Paul Grabowsky.
As this music floats out over the final credits, one realises what an utterly Australian film this has been. Tragedy is so foreign to Australian art and literature that it only ever appears in the most casual, low-key guises. The gaps in the dialogue are more eloquent than the words, while the characters’ schemes and ambitions are hopelessly petty, or doomed to failure. Vanity and insecurity hold everone in their grip.
When Basil stands in a country dam with his trouser legs turned up, reciting King Lear, we feel the absurdity of his reappearance down under, and perhaps the greater absurdity of Australia itself. This was one of White’s constant themes, with his gallery of monsters and holy fools living half-lives in suburban wastelands. He talked about “the Australian emptiness,” as if it were a metaphysical condition. Nevertheless, Sydney was the place he chose to live and his attachments obviously ran deep. White may have portrayed Australia as an emotional wasteland, but it seems that even the void may inspire a sneaking affection.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 17, 2011
Australia. Rated MA, 119 minutes.