Week two of the Sydney Film Festival rolls on but most of the interesting features are due to get local releases. As I’m reluctant to write too much about a movie that deserves a review in its own right, I’ll talk briefly about the festival, then segue to the new bio pic of J.R.R.Tolkien, which will be a big disappointment for anyone expecting another round of CGI-heavy action with wall-to-wall dwarves, hobbits, orcs and wizards.
This year the gap between the SFF and the mainstream looks like a yawning chasm. The program is paradise for film snobs and socially-concerned types, but – on the surface – it lacks popular appeal. Last week I was firmly in the ranks of the snobs and the socially-concerned, but the more I study the films on offer I can’t help wondering if the SFF has strayed a little too far from old-fashioned entertainment, which is probably the only reason 90% of people go to the movies.
Of this year’s offerings that have a chance of popular success – aside from the family film, The Secret Life of Pets 2 – the most promising is Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, which screens on the festival’s closing night of June 16. It’s the story of a struggling singer-songwriter who finds himself in a world in which the Beatles never existed – which means he is free to claim the Lennon & McCartney song book as his own property.
The SFF is a powerhouse of good intentions, with a high percentage of films made by female directors and First Nations directors. The international documentary section is exceptionally strong, while makers of short films are given a forum to show their work. One might think such inclusiveness could hardly be improved upon, but I was disconcerted by the talk on opening night about how the goal is to have 50 percent of films by female directors. This is taking fairness into the realms of ideology.
It’s indisputable that the overwhelming majority of films one sees are made by male directors, but after so many years there is finally a growing awareness of the disparity. The idea of introducing a quota based on gender may get more female directors onto the program but it raises doubts about the merit of their work. Setting rules based on gender is more likely to generate opportunism and mindless hostility than to achieve positive results. Surely the abiding principle should be that films are judged on merit, regardless of the gender, race or creed of the director.
The opening night movie, Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, proved that female directors are just as fallible as their male counterparts. This was a film that seemed to be aiming for box office popularity, but didn’t leave me feeling joyous and uplifted. In fact the main sensation was one of creeping embarrassment.
It’s not easy to get audiences to care about the First World problems of a group of aging baby boomers, especially if the story is hardly more than a soap opera. To make matters worse the scenario wouldn’t have occurred to anyone had Lawrence Kasdan never made The Big Chill (1983).
Rather than consider Palm Beach a problematic film by a female director, it would be more appropriate to see it as yet another Australian movie that misses the mark. In this sense it was reminiscent of Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, which opened the 2015 festival – a movie about an utterly unsympathetic advertising man. Palm Beach is a movie about a group of old friends getting back together for a weekend at the luxury home of one of their number. This time the entire cast is unsympathetic.
Maybe it would have been better to screen one of the more hard-edged Aussie movies, such as Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, which has already won awards at the Venice Film Festival. It sounds blood-curdling, but that’s got to be an improvement.
Tolkien is yet another bio pic that has been greeted with a disclaimer from the subject’s family saying they have nothing to do with this film and don’t endorse it. If director, Dome Karukoski had made a cinematic masterpiece it wouldn’t matter what the Tolkien family thought, but instead he has produced a sentimental, almost glowing portrait of the author of The Lord of the Rings, that shows us a man with a passionate devotion to three best friends and one good woman.
It’s all too treacly to be true, especially in those scenes in which the youthful Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, goes careening across the battlefields of the Somme in search of his pal, Jeffrey. There are homoerotic overtones in Tolkien’s affection for his three boon companions from school, Jeffrey, Robert and Christopher, but his heart is given completely to Edith (Lily Collins), the girl with whom he has grown up in a foster home.
Despite the occasional intrusion of a few seconds of CGI silliness, Tolkien is the kind of movie that will give no joy to fans of his fantasy fiction. It left me wondering how this dashing, dynamic figure could have degenerated into the professor the American essayist, Guy Davenport, recalls as “mumbling and pedantic” with a “vague and incomprehensible” lecturing style.
Davenport suspected there must have been a “secret Tolkien” who, having mumbled his way through a lecture on old Anglo-Saxon, returned home and immersed himself in vivid imaginings of Middle-Earth. If Tolkien did have a secret life, this shapeless movie sheds no light on the subject.
Sydney Film Festival 2019
Directed by Dome Karukoski
Written by David Gleeson, Stephen Beresford
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Colm Meaney, Derek Jacobi
USA, rated M, 112 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 June, 2019