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Strange Colours (Sydney Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Alena Lodkina’s first feature, Strange Colours offers viewers a visually dazzling display of understated, enjoyable performances, and heady vistas. The unconventional film tracks the journey of soft spoken Milena (newcomer Kate Cheel), who travels to Lightning Ridge – a remote opal mining facility, to stay with her sick father (Daniel P Jones, Hail), who she’s been estranged from.

There, she meets a series of remarkable individuals who populate the mining town, goes to the local pub, has a fling, and tries to decide what to do with her life.

What is interesting about the film is the paucity of big moments, or stereotypical portrayals of outback life. There are very few melodramatic scenes. Instead, Lodkina is interested in the performances, the quiet moments between the characters.

Cinematographer Michael Latham (Casting JonBenet) and Lodkina use shots of barren landscapes, realistic portrayals of locals, simple gestures and actual locations, to give the film a documentary quality. There are no major plots. Instead, it is the ambience of Strange Colours that matters – the burning rays of the sun, the feeling that everyone knows everyone.

Kate Cheel’s performance in particular is impressively restrained. At times a quiet introvert, her character Milena is mostly silent – then suddenly erupts while dealing with her father.

Premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, Strange Colours is a considered contemplation of life in the Australian sticks in all of its earthy glory; a portrait which highlights the hidden side of small town life.

 
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You Were Never Really Here (Sydney Film Festival)

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Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of the FBI, the Marines, and horrific childhood abuses, works as an unlicensed private investigator who specialises in retrieving girls who have been sold into sex slavery. Hired to find and rescue Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of Senator Votto (Alex Mannette), he soon finds that he is in over his head, and it isn’t long before the bodies start piling up.

Based on that precis you could be forgiving for dismissing Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novel as a fairly straight forward and somewhat derivative genre exercise. That would be a mistake. You Were Never Really Here wears its influences on its sleeve – a hefty dose of Taxi Driver, a touch of David Mamet’s underrated Spartan, and a wholesale sampling from the work of crime writer Andrew Vachss. Ramsay takes the skeleton of an action movie and uses it as a scaffold on which to build a bleak and confronting portrait of trauma and loss. It’s a thriller that doesn’t thrill – it brutalises.

Masterfully, it does so not by showing us the act of violence so much as the lead up and the aftermath. Actual moments of conflict are rare. Instead, Ramsay forces us to dwell on the consequences: pooled blood, scarred bodies, a spectacle lens holed by a bullet, broken furniture – and broken people.

Chief among them is, of course, our man Joe, a man so marked by a life of pain and horror that he can only dish it back out again in a way that hopefully brings some redress to the awful, fallen world the film depicts. In between jobs he dotes on his aged mother, with whom he lives, and contemplates suicide. Intermittent flashbacks hint at terrible experiences throughout his life – a violent childhood, military and law enforcement service marked by atrocity – but the film astutely refuses to make his drives and personal philosophy explicit, leaving the audience to make their own inferences.

What is explicit is his capacity for dealing out damage, with a ball peen hammer his weapon of choice. Viewers might take some vicarious satisfaction as he deploys it on a motley array of pimps and pedos, but Joe doesn’t – he is seemingly capable of feeling anything but pain and sorrow, an oak slab of a man weathered by age and torture. Phoenix is quite mesmerising in the role, bulked up and hollow-eyed, sporting a greying beard and a hunched posture. He cuts an iconic figure, but also a pitiful one; Joe might be the hero of the story, inasmuch as it can be said to have one, but he’s not a role model. Nobody in their right mind would want to be him. Hell, Joe doesn’t even want to be Joe – he’d rather be nothing, but he’ll settle for being invisible.

Invisibility, as the title slyly alludes to, is a big theme here. Joe wants to go unnoticed, presenting as a homeless man when in public, presumably in order to be easily ignored by he civilian world. He takes pains to put himself at several removes from his clients, and is paranoid that the teenage son of one of the contacts he uses to arrange jobs might know where he lives. The subculture he moves through, a demimonde of perverts and predators, is similarly hidden from the waking world. Ramsay shoots this milieu obliquely, her camera peering around corners and through windows, cutting away quickly as though afraid to be caught peeping, heightening the paranoia – we;re seeing secret, confronting things we shouldn’t be seeing, and we’re in trouble if we get caught. We’re afraid to see and w’re afraid to be seen, and its that shield of fear that allows this horrors to flourish behind closed doors, and within the corridors of power.

There’s a conspiracy of course, but it’s lightly sketched. The film isn’t interested in the mechanics of corruption and perversion, it just wants us to know that such things exist. Ultimately, Joe can’t end the systemic abuses he fights no matter how many skulls he shatters with his hammer, but he can save individual victims – not only from those who prey upon them but, crucially, from being scarred to the point of becoming someone like him. He pursues his grim trade not just to punish the wicked and not just to rescue the weak, but to hopefully break the generational cycle of abuse and violence. He doesn’t always succeed; this point is driven home in film’s final movements, which take what could have been framed as a moment of victory and catharsis and instead turn it into one of dawning horror. That feeling stays with you long after the credits roll. You Were Never Really Here leaves a mark, as intended.

 
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Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders (Sydney Film Festival)

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The 1959 murders of the Clutter farming family in rural Kansas is one of the most famous crimes in 20th century American history, bested only by celebrity-studded atrocities such as the Manson Family murders and the killing of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In point of fact, the spotlight of celebrity has a lot to do with that. News reports of the crime, which saw Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon killed in their home by drifters Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in an attempted robbery, attracted the attention of celebrated writer Truman Capote, who in 1966 would publish the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, his account of the murders, investigation, trial, and eventual execution of the killers.

Capote’s novel was filmed twice (a feature in ’67, a TV miniseries in ’96) and the effete wordsmith’s own involvement spawned two recent movies: 2005’s Capote, which netted Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar, and 2006’s Infamous. Culturally speaking, this is well-turned earth. Still, true crime veteran Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) has seen fit to run the plough over it once more to see what gets uncovered.

The answer is not much that we haven’t seen before. Over the course of four episodes, Berlinger frames the Clutter case in the language of modern true crime filmmaking, assembling a montage narrative out of contemporary accounts and interviews with surviving witnesses and the relatives of the deceased. The recent uptick in this kind of series, which is all but ubiquitous on Netflix these days, means that the formal innovations Berlinger pioneered are very familiar to audiences now. The result is that Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders is well made and engrossing, but doesn’t explore much in the way of new territory, either in content or execution.

It is very comprehensive, though, covering the murders, the personal histories of victims and perpetrators, the span from crime to punishment, and going beyond into the continuing effect on both those directly scarred by the events and those, like Capote, who chose to involve themselves in them. Still, if you know your way around the case and the cultural artifacts it spawned, this is pretty familiar stuff.

 
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1% (Sydney Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week 10 Comments

In the very opening moments of Stephen McCallum’s 1%, the audience is assaulted by infamously loud noise band Swans instantly filling the cinema with a cacophony of distorted chords while singer Michael Gira repeatedly screams “lunacy, lunacy”, like the howl of a tortured Greek chorus calling out from the gates of Hades itself, as its denizens, a horde of leather clad outlaws on motorcycles, roar forth through a tunnel into the night of the city. It becomes abundantly clear that, much like the road these men are travelling down, the following film will be a dark, harrowing journey toward a final destination that can only be one of madness and death.

The Copperhead Motorcycle Club has gone from strength to strength under the interim leadership of their Vice President Paddo (Ryan Corr). Membership is up and they are on the brink of a deal with a rival club to launder their ill-gotten gains, turning their profit legitimate and beyond the reach of the law, but when club President Knuck (Matt Nable) is released from prison, he is determined to return the club to the status quo, through any means necessary. Paddo reluctantly steps aside, but when his brother Skink (Josh McConville) breaks club rules and is exiled it sets the two leaders down the road toward violent confrontation.

Shot on a small budget on the back streets of Perth, Western Australia, 1% is a lean, mean, well-oiled genre machine, continuing the Australian cinematic tradition of grim, violent portrayals of toxic masculinity. Immediate comparisons to ’70s Ozploitation classic Stone are inevitable but there are shades of Romper Stomper in the film’s group dynamics, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in its portrayal of the way prison focuses criminality more than it rehabilitates, and even Wake in Fright with its feeling of inescapable claustrophobia. But what actor/screenwriter Matt Nable and director Stephen McCallum manage to do is to embrace the Shakespearean nature of the story that lends the film an air of the epic. These men are not stereotypes, they are archetypes, acting out humanity’s violent tendencies as a way for the audience to experience the darkest extremes of our very nature.

Yet amongst this archetypal milieu there are political concerns to be found in the motorcycle club as microcosm for the current political climate. Paddo, being the young upstart, has his eye on the horizon, to the future of what his beloved club could be, whereas Knuck, the old warrior, is the voice of the past which rejects change; Knuck is Trump, he is Brexit, the obsessive view of the nostalgic past that refuses to look beyond the immediately knowable. His time in prison sharpened his resolve, but it also brought to the surface homosexual tendencies, which in his world would be viewed as a weakness, and, like Paddo’s ideas for the club’s future, he refuses to acknowledge them.

All of these machinations would be for nought, though, without a terrific ensemble cast to give voice to these characters and director McCallum has assembled a formidable one. The aforementioned three male leads; Corr, Nable (terrifying) and McConville are superb and the always brilliant Aaron Pedersen appears as Sugar, the leader of a rival club, in a very welcome extended cameo. However, for all the quintessential hardcore male-ness on display the true power lies, in both the film and the performances, with the women. Simone Kessell is a powerhouse as Knuck’s wife and keeper of the flame Hayley, while Abbey Lee brings a quiet intelligence to the scheming Katrina, Paddo’s girlfriend and Hayley’s heir-presumptive.

1% is a gloriously rendered and assured debut feature, but if there were to be a caveat it would be that the film is a brutal watch. Thankfully, McCallum and company don’t wallow in the brutality but rather use it as a means of portraying the damaged and damaging lives these people lead. In fact, it is the violence that happens off screen that is the most emotionally affecting. But what we do see is captured with an unblinking intensity by cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, who also captures the suburbs of Perth with an eye for unexpected detail.

If 1% was just a well-made motorcycle picture it would still be considered an achievement of genre filmmaking, but Matt Nable’s screenplay and Stephen McCallum’s direction aims for something more epic in scope. The film feels like it could be classified as Ozploitation 2.0, bringing a modern update to a classic formula but still using the genre to address universal concerns. It is grim, gritty and violent but to avoid the film on those terms is missing the point; we currently live in violent times and genre films can provide that experiential lens through which we can confront the agony, the ecstasy and the lunacy of the world around us.

 
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Genesis 2.0 (Sydney Film Festival)

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In far northern Siberia, hopeful locals trudge through melting permafrost in search of Mammoth tusks to sell to the lucrative Chinese ivory market. In biotech labs around the world, scientists on the bleeding edge of genetic research push the boundaries of cloning and gene therapy. These two disparate worlds are connected: the notion of successfully cloning an extinct Woolly Mammoth has become emblematic of the wild possibilities of genetic technology, and the discovery of a largely intact Mammoth corpse which may yield viable genetic material is the central event of this fascinating documentary.

Working with young Yakutian filmmaker Maxim Arbugaev, Swiss director Christian Frei (War Photographer) paints an icily vivid picture of a world where the possibilities of science permeate every layer of existence, down to the largely traditional lifestyles of the Indigenous Siberians who hunt for ivory in the tundra. Money is the connective tissue, of course;  for an ivory fossicker, a good find can set them up for life. At the other end of the chain, private, commercial biolabs underwrite more speculative work by cloning the dead pets of the wealthy at $100K a pop.

The coolly meditative Genesis 2.0 is a fascinating work, and its canny grasp of the cultural knock-on effects of technology and capital are reminiscent of the sharp techno-thrillers written by the likes of Neal Stephenson or William Gibson. This is, of course, the real world we’re dealing with there, but then the real world has been feeling like a dystopian sci-fi novel for some time now.

That title isn’t glib, either. Genesis 2.0 goes to great lengths to connect the sterile world of science with the more earthy and, paradoxically, transcendent world of myth, religion, and folklore. Lab-coated genetic technicians ruminate on the possibility of perfecting God’s work, while Yakut paleontologist Semyon Grigoriev reflects in the perceived bad luck in touching a Mammoth cadaver (but cannot resist trying a taste of some raw flesh!). While the film marvels at the advances of science and the seemingly endless possibilities offered by genetic engineering, there’s an ever-present undercurrent of unease, a sense of trespass and the taboo. The whole thing is book-ended by voice over recitations of traditional Yakut epic poetry: somber, portentous, and doomy.

Genesis 2.0‘s precise thesis is elusive because of that inherent, deliberate contradiction; it refuses to reduce its complexities down to a snappy conclusion, preferring instead to present its observations and let us do the work for ourselves. Nonetheless, this is an arresting piece that has well and truly earned the favourable comparisons to Werner Herzog it has drawn.

 
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A Vigilante (Sydney Film Festival)

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Olivia Wilde Is Sadie, the vigilante of the title, a domestic abuse survivor who now works to rescue other victims from their tormentors. Not in any official capacity, mind you; Sadie’s phone number is quietly circulated in abuse support groups. One call with the right passphrase and she will appear like a summoned spirit of vengeance, more than willing to deploy savage violence to achieve her goals “I want to kill you,” she whispers to one violent hubby; she settles for beating him bloody until he agrees to sign over his house and 75% of his money to his wife, quit his job, and leave town forever.

Written and directed by Australian Sarah Daggar-Nickson, making her feature debut, A Vigilante is a revenge thriller, existing along the same axis as Death Wish, The Punisher, The Equaliser, and any of several dozen variations on the theme. The crucial difference is that the austere, uncompromising A Vigilante largely refuses us the catharsis of violent action. Yes, there’s plenty of damage meted out, and the people on the receiving end of Sadie’s anger richly deserve it, but it feels not so much like righteous wrath as compulsive acting out – she does this because she has nothing else left in her life.

Crucially, she has chosen this path. Sadie’s eyes are open. Her routine of anonymous hotels, YouTube make up tutorials (she disguises herself before each mission), Krav Maga drills, and absolute emotional isolation, punctuated by devastating PTSD-induced panic attacks and equally devastating acts of violence, is preferable to societal norms, because cleaving to those norms would make her complicit in ignoring the endemic violence against women that she herself was subject to.

One of the most striking and deliberately troubling elements of A Vigilante is the way it paints domestic abuse not as the actions of a few bad apples but as a silent epidemic occurring behind too many closed doors. Of course, Sadie’s husband (Morgan Spector) is a particularly vile example of a perpetrator and, this being a narrative film with certain in-built dramatic expectations, he does circle back into her world once more. Still, Daggar-Nickson takes pains to communicate that these abuses are not isolated incidents but part of a wide-spread pattern, largely invisible but nonetheless measurable. As a self-empowered righter of wrongs Sadie is a lone wolf, but she moves through a community of women forged in shared victimhood, and that community is vast.

It’s Sadie that our focus remains fixed upon, though, and Olivia Wilde’s bold, raw performance is the axis around which the whole thing spins. It’s a truly impressive turn, and Wilde really puts herself through the wringer to expose Sadie’s bottomless well of grief, rage, and self-loathing. It feels ego-free in a way that few actors of Wilde’s status are capable of, and hopefully we’ll see her tackle more roles of this calibre and complexity in the future.

A bleak, challenging, and angry piece of cinema, A Vigilante uses familiar genre tropes to explore uncomfortable truths. Which is, to be fair, an old trick, but one we never get tired of.

 

 
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The Witness (Sydney Latin American Film Festival)

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In September of 1978, a 12-year-old boy named Juan Perez goes out onto his farm with his horse and witnesses something that would scar him for the next 40 years. He sees a UFO, climbs onto the ship and gets up close and personal with the beings that are living in the ship. During this time, he ends up seeing his grandfather whom he was incredibly close to.

Now, 40 years later, Juan lives a sheltered life and understandably, is haunted by what happened. Documentarian Alan Stilvelman visits Juan, along with astrophysicist Jacques Vallée, and ayahuasca proponent Nestor Berlanda, finally getting to the truth behind what he saw on that fateful day.

The Witness (aka Witness of Another World) is a brilliant piece of cinema that plays out like a mystery as to what actually happened on that day in 1978. The filmmaker’s use of close ups allows the audience to empathise with Juan, virtually forced into crying as we see this man unravel.

 This Argentinian film presented as part of Pachamama Festival 2018, gives audiences a portal into an exotic world through a man, with a significant trauma in his life, figuring out the meaning behind it so he can try the best to move on and enjoy the rest of his life.

 
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America Town (Sydney Film Festival)

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In a small South Korean town alongside the demilitarized zone, an entire local economy of bars, clubs and brothels has built up around the ever-present American soldiers. Sang-kook (Kim Dan-yool) works dutifully in his father’s photography studio, taking ID pictures for the local sex workers’ health cards. He also moonlights as a purveyor of pornography, developing photographs of naked women and selling them to the local school bullies. When the sex worker Young-lim (Lim Chae-yeong) enters the studio for an ID picture, it sparks off a romantic obsession in Sang-kook – one with unintended consequences for them both.

With South Korean entertainment making unprecedented inroads onto a global stage, it is worth considering that the country has not always been the way it is today. From 1960 it operated under a succession of dictatorships that lasted almost 30 years, backed up by the United States’ constant post-war military presence. It is in this pre-revolutionary period that writer/director Keon Soo-il sets his small-scale and uncompromising drama America Town. With the American army based along the border between South and North Korea, numerous communities were built to cater to the sudden and insatiable market for alcohol to drink and women to buy. There is a core story to America Town, but in many respects that story exists to remind its audience of one of the nastier elements of Korea’s 20th century history.

Young-lim has come to “America Town” after fleeing an abusive step-father but is now trapped in perpetual debt to a local pimp. Alongside a group of young women in similar states of captivity, she is forced to offer herself to visiting soldiers for sex. The local Korean government actively administers this arrangement, so long as the women are tested twice-weekly for sexually transmitted infections. Women who test positive are forcibly removed by the local police.

Despite her situation, Young-lim keeps up an optimistic and bright-faced outlook, and it is this upbeat nature that attracts the attention of Sang-kook. America Town is a poor place for a teenage boy to grow up, and in Young-lim he clearly sees some form of way out. Kim Dan-yool plays Sang-kook very well: it’s a complex character who is being pulled in multiple directions by his father’s expectations, his mother’s absence – an element the film gestures towards, but does not fully reveal, his growing rage, and the expected teenage hormones. Much of the weight of the film’s first two-thirds fall on his shoulders, and he gives an engaging and sympathetic performance out of a character that does not always behave in the most respectable of ways.

Lim Chae-yeong’s performance as Young-lim dominates the film’s final act, and the focus on her character draws out a similarly powerful performance. Her more charming demeanour of the film’s earlier acts only make the shift in her personality more moving.

The film is handsomely shot, particularly during the film’s night scenes. The stark contrast of gaudy entertainment lights and decrepit, cheaply constructed buildings make a powerful impression – as does the constant stream of crass, drunken Americans eager to have sex with any woman that is financially available. There is obviously an extent to which America Town indulges in familiar clichés – the ‘teenage boy meets a hooker with a heart of gold’ stereotype is remarkably well-worn – but the historical context and intelligent treatment of the social issues involved go a long way to lift the film above the crowd. It can be depressing stuff, but it also feels most worthy.

 
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Dragonfly Eyes (Sydney Film Festival)

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Qing Ting (Liu Yongfang) is a young Chinese woman who leaves the security of a Buddhist temple for a job in a large-scale dairy farm. It is there she meets Ke Fan (Su Shangqing), a rebellious and angry young man. After Ting loses her next job by being rude to an aggressive customer, Fan violently takes matters into his own hands.

The interesting aspect of Dragonfly Eyes is not its story, which only gets sillier and more melodramatic from what I have described. What is fascinating is the way the film is put together. Liu Yongfang and Su Shangqing only play the voices of Ting and Fan. For the visuals, artist-turned-filmmaker Xu Bing went straight to the Internet. With a team of assistants, he sifted through more than 10,000 hours of video. All of it was captured by surveillance and streaming cameras. He took real-life scenes from streets and parks, apartment and store lobbies, and car dashcams, and assembled them into a narrative collage.

On a conceptual level it is tremendous. It is not surprising to read that the process took Xu a couple of years to complete. That he completed a narrative film out of all the disparate clips is cause for acclaim. If there was a prize of best experimental feature concept, Dragonfly Eyes would absolutely be a front-runner. Sadly, film prizes tend to award the execution rather than the concept, and it disappointing to find that as a piece of watchable cinema Dragonfly Eyes fails to convince.

The story is fairly risible. As it progresses, it does seem to raise issues over privacy, celebrity and identity. In practice those issues come across as muddled and under-developed. There is a strong sense Xu wants to make a social statement with his film, but it is never entirely clear what that statement is supposed to be. Over the course of reviewing all those thousands of hours of online video, Xu and his team came across some remarkable moments: lightning strikes, landslides, flash floods, car crashes, and the like. They all get inserted into the film in scattershot fashion. In some cases, the juxtaposition is striking, and resonates with the emotional turmoil of the characters. In other cases, these clips feel wildly out of place and – given that several clearly feature people dying or getting seriously injured – genuinely irresponsible.

When the film works, whether in a particular edit or the use of a specific piece of video, it suddenly pops off the screen and makes an impressive impact. Those moments are too sparsely distributed through the film. For the bulk of its running time, the viewer is left watching a ridiculous story played out with underwhelming voice-overs and a curious format where characters will change face from shot to shot for more than an hour.

Arthouse viewers will potentially love it: as noted earlier, on a conceptual level alone this is an inventive and fascinating piece of work. As an actual narrative work, it’s terribly dull.

 
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The Heiresses (Sydney Film Festival)

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This Paraguayan gem is about the fortunes (or rather misfortunes) of a lesbian couple who’ve been together for thirty years. Though hitherto affluent, they’re now very seriously in debt and forced to literally sell off the family silver. Martina, known as Chiquita (Margarita Irun), seems to be by far the more ‘together’ and resourceful of the two, and also the happier and more positive – or at least the braver. This is notwithstanding the small point that she’s facing imminent imprisonment on a fraud charge (though keeping it a secret from all but a few friends). Chiquita’s partner Chela (Ana Brun) is on the other hand shy – but proud – and evidently chronically depressed.

 

Every performance here is pitch-perfect, right down to the most fleeting, but the central focus is on Chela, and Brun’s portrayal of her is a veritable tour de force and the epitome of both restraint and subtle evocation. Temporarily left to her own devices, Chela starts chauffeuring wealthy women around for money (despite having no driver’s license), and the plot – or at least the characterisation – thickens.

What might have declined into a predictable or trite saga of personal liberation becomes instead an immersive drama – with definite but understated elements of social and class commentary – that never ceases to feel utterly real.

The Heiresses is faultlessly played, down to the last mannerism and nuance. It’s a tense slow-burner with that rare virtue, a great ending. Absolutely superb.