For almost three decades Muriel Steinbeck was one of the most respected actors in Australia, giving acclaimed performances in radio, theatre, film and TV; she endorsed lipstick and chocolate, was a genuine box office draw on stage, and starred in both films and the first Australian TV soap. Despite that, she’s little remembered today.
There are few things worse than a parent losing their child. One of them would be letting a deceptive hope creep in that maybe, just maybe, the child isn’t lost after all.
Dealing with a tragic situation is already too much for a lot of people to take, as the psychological strain of death that can truly mess with the mind. But throw in the possibility that all that pain and heartache might have been misplaced and… well, you get films like this.
A remake of the 2008 French film Mark Of An Angel, with the only major change being the framing of the narrative climax and who is directly involved, it plays out as a character study of Noomi Rapace’s Lizzie, a divorced mother who has been left traumatised by the death of her daughter, and who starts obsessing over a child in the neighbourhood that she believes is her.
Thrillers of this nature benefit from plot ambiguity, keeping the audience in stasis while the two potential outcomes whirl around the story: Is this actually her daughter, or has she lost her mind from the grief?
In the hands of writers Luke Davies, who has experience with displaced families through his work on Lion, and David Regal, best known for his work in late-‘90s Nickelodeon cartoons, that ambiguity feels somewhat misplaced.
Lizzie herself isn’t given the most sympathetic of frames, even with her emotional baggage. This isn’t helped by Rapace’s performance, which is a little too dead-eyed to give the audience a chance to consider her actually being right.
But as the story plays out, its position both as a stand-alone film and as a remake starts to become clearer. Director Kim Farrant (Strangerland), even when the scripting lets her down, shows staggering empathy for the position Lizzie is in, along with that of Yvonne Strahovski as the child’s mother.
On one hand, having an adult basically stalking your child will never not be cause for alarm. But on the other, it’s a nightmare-come-to-life scenario to be so wracked with sorrow for the loss of one’s own flesh and blood that some hope, any hope, is worth clinging to. And this is all without getting into Australia’s dark heart, with children being separated from their families, a history which is still irritatingly debated to this day.
This is definitely rough around the edges, and the weakest of Luke Davies’ most recent efforts (also Beautiful Boy) dealing with familial strains, but overall, it just manages to work.
The performances may not be as strong as they needed to be, but the film’s sense of mood and unending sense of dread fill in the blanks, and the intent at its core regarding maternal instincts feels like it’s tapping into something real. More than a little unsettling, but real.
The impact on the Tasmanian Aboriginal population by the arrival of the British was genocidal. Whether this was part of the intention is still a matter of fierce debate of course. What is certain is that Van Diemen’s land in the late 18th century was one hellish place.
Director Jennifer Kent (who made the acclaimed horror pic The Babadook) doesn’t spare us the raw details. In fact, she somewhat overeggs it to an extent that some will find it wearisome as well as repugnant. Still, the film is clearly a work of conviction and has startling moments and performances.
At the centre of the story is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a feisty young Irish lass with a voice as sweet as a nightingale, who is eking out an existence with her husband and their young child. This is a penal colony whose rough inhabitants are pinned down by the brutal regime of the English soldiers. As an Irish woman, Clare feels the old enmity and resentment of the English and the feelings of corrupt garrison commander Hawkins (Sam Claflin) is clearly mutual. The most oppressed of all are the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people who are rounded up for a bounty or coerced into being trackers to navigate for the whites when they enter the wilderness interior.
Having established the harshness of the world, the film’s drama kicks off when Hawkins tries to exert his ‘rights’ to take/rape Clare. This is a scene that will numb some audiences. After that, Clare turns into an exterminating angel and the rest of the film is the working through of her revenge.
As noted, Jennifer Kent feels the necessity to show us how arbitrary and cruel this land would have been, and to stoke our vicarious desire for Clare’s actions. Franciosi (briefly in Game of Thrones) gives a fine performance and she brings inner strength to her pivotal role. Late in the film, she teams up through necessity with escaped Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) – who has seen his tribe annihilated. This is one of the few elements that comes off contrived, and potentially problematic coming from a non-Aboriginal filmmaker.
The rest of the cast all throw themselves into the historical mayhem with good turns from Damon Herriman as the bullying and bullied subaltern soldier. The revelation though is Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Me Before You) as the irredeemably evil Hawkins. He is more well known for his romantic roles but here he relishes the opportunity to show what a range he truly has an actor. His cruelty is what gives the film much of its explosive force.
Dan Fisher (Hugo Weaving), a lauded war photographer nestled in the bustle of the Western Sydney suburbs, comes across a South Sundanese refugee (Andrew Luri). Unexpectedly drawn together and forming a close friendship, the two divergent men become entangled in emotional, political and moral complications. Each finds their beliefs questioned, as does the audience.
Led by a brilliant and understated Hugo Weaving, Hearts and Bones is the considered debut feature narrative film by Ben Lawrence (Ghosthunter).
Fisher, esteemed for his work and married to former ballet dancer Josie (Hayley McElhinney) receives an unexpected door knock from cab driver Sebastian Amad, insisting the photographer hear what he’s got to say.
Sebastian is concerned that Fisher’s forthcoming exhibition and book of collected works will feature images of a slaughter he was involved in 15 years ago in his South Sudanese village. A massacre where Sebastian (who is expecting a child) lost his first wife and three children. His partner knows nothing of his former life. He doesn’t want these in the public and asks Dan to alter the plans.
Fisher, still reeling from his own war experiences, is wary but sensitive to the man’s concerns. He agrees to let Sebastian into his home, and eventually, his life.
Dan and Sebastian become chums, unexpectedly finding much alike. Dan learns intimate details of the Sudanese migrant’s life, his culture, beliefs and cuisine. He befriends Sebastian’s wife Anishka (Bolude Watson), and their friends in the community. Dan is intrigued by local efforts to develop a choir.
Bus as their kinship grows and Dan looks deeper into the meaning of the photos, he finds himself dealing with complexities surrounding Sebastian’s past actions; concerns which threaten to unravel his burgeoning friendship, his thoughts on Sebastian, and the very bedrock of what he believes right or wrong. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the photos than Sebastian made out.
Should Dan tell anyone about his discovery? Can he tell his wife, and cancel his own exhibition? What is the cost of defying his friend and publishing the photos?
All of this happens while Dan is navigating his own stressed relationship with his partner. Worsening the situation, Josie springs the unexpected news on Dan that she’s expecting.
Further complicating matters, Dan’s war-related anxiety is deteriorating. Josie finds out about the photos for herself and becomes wedged in the conflict due to her friendship with Sebastian’s wife – who is unaware of all of this and also pregnant.
Weaving is sterling, guiding fresh face Andrew Luri, yet leading the film with careful and honed sensitivity as he unravels into infinite states.
With multiple concerns arising from each confrontation, the narrative of Hearts and Bones provides many thought starters. Troubling and complex questions are posed through a character (a refugee) and setting (the outer Sydney suburbs) scarcely examined in Australian films. The location is key. One of the intentions Lawrence had in mind with the film, was to capture Sydney in 2019 in an honest way.
Coming from documentary roots, the street photography captured by cinematographer Hugh Miller (Sherpa, Ghosthunter, 2040) and Lawrence, who is the son of celebrated Australian director Ray Lawrence (Bliss, Jindabyne, Lantana) imbues the story with the desired familiarity and sensitivity. This is magnified by the prominent suburbia, a backdrop and a character itself, throughout the film.
Hearts and Bones is an involving and tightly wound human drama which hits close to home.