The Good Wife

November 12, 2020

Marge Hills is the sort of character in novels who stares out the window a lot and wonders why interesting things always seem to happen to other people, while she is stuck in her dreary, workaday existence. Except that The Good Wife, a mood piece set in 1939 Australia in which Marge is the titular character, isn’t a novel, it’s a movie.

One of the problems with the film is that it never quite finds a way to make Marge’s issue alive in cinematic terms. In pages of description, a novel can vividly portray spiritual suffocation. A movie must come up with images to show the same thing, and The Good Wife hasn’t found them.

What is has found is a good performance from the heretofore wooden Rachel Ward, the gorgeous star of The Thorn Birds and Against All Odds. Her lean face holds all the texture of a thousand hours spent looking out into the arid Australian afternoon.

In screenwriter Peter Kenna’s scheme, she will find a change in her dull life through sexual curiosity. Her husband (Bryan Brown, also Ward’s real-life husband), is one of those rough-hewn laborer types; he engages in, shall we say, uncomplicated lovemaking. It’s not enough for Marge, and she looks to his brother (Steven Vidler) for a different approach.

Actually, the brother turns out to be as unsatisfactory. Then a city slicker (Sam Neill, the smooth Soviet of Amerika) arrives, to take over the bartending job at the town hotel, and also to cut a romantic swath through the town’s womenfolk. Marge is both repulsed and attracted to this rake, and she makes him the focus of her attention – to the lip-smacking interest of the gossipy locals.

The situation is well into D.H. Lawrence territory, but oddly without any dark sensuousness. The oppressive dustiness of the atmosphere seems to seep into the characters, and director Ken Cameron’s style is so dry that Marge’s obsession doesn’t really catch fire.

The film comes close to acknowledging this. When someone points out to Marge that she’s wasting her time chasing after the ne’er-do-well bartender, she looks lost and says, “He must be able to love me, or what would be the point of my feeling like this? It wouldn’t make sense.” It doesn’t, quite, and even Ward’s sensitive, wearied performance can’t bring it convincingly into focus.

First published in The Herald, February 24, 1987

I must have watched the TV miniseries Amerika, but I don’t recall it. Just from reading this description, it seems obvious Neill should’ve played the husband and Brown the rakish bartender, but maybe Brown already had the script for Cocktail sitting around, so who knows. (That one came out a year after The Good Wife.) Director Cameron worked a lot in Aussie TV; screenwriter Kenna died this year this came out. Original title: The Umbrella Woman.


April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.

Dead Calm

January 4, 2012

Except for a brief prologue, Dead Calm is set completely at sea, in the middle of the absolutely featureless ocean of the South Pacific. This gives it a strong focus, an elemental feeling, a location stripped of everything but the essentials.

An experienced sailor (Sam Neill, recently seen as Meryl Streep’s husband in A Cry in the Dark) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) are sailing their large, handsome sailboat across the South Pacific. One day they come across another sailboat drifting in the distance, and a frenetic man (Billy Zane) paddling a dinghy in their direction.

Brought aboard, this man says that everyone else on his boat has died horribly of botulism, and that his vessel is slowly sinking. He refuses to go back. So Neill rows the dinghy across to take a look. While he’s on the sinking boat, the stranger overpowers the wife and steers the two of them away from the stranded Neill.

The rest of the movie, set over the course of a single long day, has Neill desperately trying to fire up the dead engines and make pursuit, while his wife investigates ways of subduing the brutish intruder and turning the boat around.

It’s a devilishly clever situation, based on a novel by Charles Williams. This film, Australian made, is directed by Philip Noyce, who made a lovely Aussie movie called Newsfront about a decade ago. Dead Calm is a world away from that, but Noyce draws every ounce of suspense out of the situation with nary a slack moment once the couple is out to sea. And this is as much a psychological study as it is a thriller; the dark, violent stranger is the personification of the anxiety and troubles of the marriage.

One of the things I like most about Dead Calm is that it plays by the rules. You’re given all the important information early on, with no cheap surprises later. And the characters don’t do stupid things. The kidnapped wife, for instance, is no simpering victim (as in too many movie thrillers). She’s entirely capable and crafty, and tries a number of different schemes to outfox her stronger opponent.

The novel had actually been filmed once before, by none other than the great Orson Welles, who shot a version entirely at sea in the late 1960s with himself, Jeanne Moreau, and Laurence Harvey. I’ve seen bits of the never-completed film, and it would have been a different kettle of fish, to be sure; more frenzied and perverse than this movie.

But this film serves very effectively. It provides some nice (and some nasty) thrills, and a lingering feeling as disturbing as an approaching squall seen over an expanse of smooth, becalmed water.

First published in the Herald, April 6, 1989

The movie served as a pretty good audition piece for all concerned. From here Kidman’s next stop was Days of Thunder and everything that came after that. Noyce went on to his curious directing career, with its absolute duds mixed in with very professional work. And then there’s Zane: how do his choices come about, exactly?