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Hearts and Bones

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What power does the past have over us? Only that which we afford it, or is there often some other factor to consider? What if our past is also part of another’s past and the two versions become so entangled that one truth is not possible.

In Ben Lawrence’s carefully constructed drama, the power of testimony and the dangers of documentation are held up to the light. It is set in present day Sydney and centres on the life of feted war photographer Ben Fisher (Hugo Weaving in fine form). He is back from yet another mission and is at the stage of his career where he can have a major retrospective. His wife Josie (Hayley McElhinney) has always backed his work but that loyalty has not been without cost. She tells Dan that they are going to have a child, expecting him to see it as a reason to slow down at last. She is taken aback when Dan reacts angrily and asks accusingly whether she thinks he should have had a say in this decision.

At the same time, Sebastian (Andrew Luri), a refugee from South Sudan approaches Dan to photograph his charming amateur choir made up of men from many African countries. Dan befriends the choir and forms a bond with Sebastian. Both men have significant PTSD and memories that have seeped into their hearts and bones. They recognise that in each other.

Eventually, Sebastian pleads with Dan not to show a photo that he took of a massacre in Sebastian’s village some years ago. Dan is then torn between a form of self-censorship, which goes against his whole raison d’etre, and respecting the wishes of his new friend.

Ben Lawrence (son of Lantana director Ray Lawrence) made the remarkable documentary Ghosthunter in 2018, and here makes his narrative feature debut, and it is an impressive start. The film’s strands – let’s not call them plot twists – are carefully overlaid so that everyone’s motivations and reasons are both plausible and given respect. Equally important, the film (which played to acclaim in competition at last year’s Sydney Film Festival) doesn’t just praise or sentimentalise refugees, which gives it a bold moral complexity. Non-professional actor Luri is particularly impressive as Sebastian, a man desperate to start again at all costs. Weaving is generous in the way he works with him and it gives the central relationship a solid mandate from which to examine the film’s complex and delicate issues.

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Most memorably cinematically distilled in the 1983 comedy classic, Trading Places, the concept of – or rather, questions around – “nature versus nurture” have long fascinated big and small thinkers alike. Is a person’s character primarily formed by what they’re born with, or is it the experiences that one goes through during life that makes a person what they truly are? That query is right at the heart of the quirky and engaging comedy drama, Birthmarked, which doesn’t come up with any definitive answers, and in the process, perhaps proves that there actually aren’t any nailed-down answers to be found. From co-writer, Marc Tulin, and co-writer/director, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais (who crafted the little seen 2013 thriller, Whitewash, starring Thomas Haden Church), it’s an enjoyably unusual rummage through a big bag of old but always valid ideas.

Eccentric married scientists, Catherine and Ben (played with typical perfectly nuanced abandon by the always on-point Toni Collette and Matthew Goode), are so hung up on the question of nature versus nurture that – under the guidance of the even more eccentric bigwig scientist, Gertz (Ben Wheatley fave, Michael Smiley) – they opt to turn their own family home into a petri dish. Along with their own baby-on-the-way, they also adopt two children from diverse backgrounds, and then set about raising them in a manner directly defiant to the circumstances of their birth: the child of the two scientists is brought up to love and focus on art, the progeny of two less-than-intelligent parents is pushed toward the academic, and the son of two people with serious anger management issues is prodded in the direction of pacifism.

To say that the “experiment” doesn’t go as planned would be an understatement, with the general instability of this oddball family having the greatest influence on the lives of its children. The continuing roll of eccentricities (not to mention the arch narration, 1970s setting, top notch soundtrack, and unashamed intellectualism) make comparisons to Wes Anderson starkly obvious, but Birthmarked remains a thoroughly original charmer, always showing a genuine warmth towards its characters. Smartly written and superbly performed, it cannily shows that the only thing predictable about families is how unpredictable they are.

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Cold November

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A coming of age story centered on the traditions of deer hunting, Cold November is an indie drama that centres on Flo (Bijou Abbas), an apple-cheeked 12 year old girl who is keen as mustard to get out into the woods and bag her first buck.

Writer and director Karl Jacobs flips our gender expectations with his tale. Flo’s woodcraft mentors are her mother Amanda (Anna Klemp), aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner), and grandmother Georgia (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding), with Jacobs himself in the relatively minor role of Flo’s uncle Craig. It’s an interesting spin on the hoary “rite of manhood” narrative, with the central hunting trip – explicitly an almost ritualised family tradition) – this is a strongly matriarchal clan, and the women are as eager for deer season as any man.

Narratively, Cold November is fairly straight forward and doesn’t bother to import needless drama from outside its concerns to spice things up. It doesn’t glorify slaughter, not does it condemn killing for food – these elements are presented as facts of life for Flo and co., and participating in these activities are a given for the tween. There’s a stillness and simplicity to the proceedings; we spend a lot of time sitting quietly in a deer blind, waiting for something to happen, while life goes on.

One of the key strengths of Cold November is that it isn’t gender blind – these aren’t just generic male characters who are gender-lifted – the women here deal with explicitly female issues, whether it be the pressures of being a single mother, or the untimely arrival of a first period (an element of the films overall “cycle of life” motif).

That’s not the only blood we get, either. Jacobs refuses to pull any punches when it comes to the mechanics of hunting, and the film’s key scene concerns Flo killing and field-dressing a deer on her own – a scene that may well disturb some viewers. It’s a commendable bit of verisimilitude.

Contrasting this is the shadow of a family trauma that overshadows the hunt, the effects of which are presented in an almost magical realist manner as Flo dreams of a recently dead relative. It’s an odd fit alongside the film’s predominantly realistic tone – not an unwelcome one, but certainly an unusual choice.

Ultimately, Cold November is a quiet, meditative film that gently but deliberately upends many of the accepted narrative conventions about gender, nature, life and death. There’s probably not a huge audience for it in Australia, but the audience it does find will appreciate it.

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The Limehouse Golem

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It’s foggy old London town, circa 1880, and Theft and Fraud detective Inspector John Kildare (Bill Nighy) has been put on the case of The Limehouse Golem, a vicious serial murderer – mainly because Scotland Yard thinks they’ll need a handy scapegoat when they fail to apprehend the killer. The fasdidious, reserved Kildare has a number one suspect in journalist-turned-playwright John Cree (Sam Reid), but Cree is already dead – and his wife, actress Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), is on trial for his murder. Can Kildare find evidence that Cree is the culprit in time to save Elizabeth from the hangman’s noose?

Peter Ackroyd’s source novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, sounds like an absolute blast of a literary romp, but its translation to the screen has left it a somewhat misshapen and rough beast. The film, directed by Juan Carlos Medina (Painless) and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman (Kingsman, The Woman in Black) suffers from serious pacing problems and an odd structure that works best when the ostensible main thrust of the plot – Kildare’s investigation – is sidelined in favour of extensive flashbacks that fill out Elizabeth’s background.

It’s here that the film really comes alive, portraying in often shocking detail the travails of a capable woman in the stews of Victorian England. We see Lizzie, as she’s known, lift herself up out of a childhood of extreme poverty and abuse, finding a home and a family of sorts in London’s music halls, colleague and friend to lauded comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth). We also see how she is used and mistreated by those around her, eventually trapped in a loveless marriage with the ambitious Cree. At its heart, this is a story about a woman taking what power she can in a society that robs her of almost every opportunity, and these sequences are easily the most interesting of the film.

It’s not as grim as all that, though. The Limehouse Golem‘s depictions of Victorian backstage life are wonderfully bold, bawdy and colourful, and the arc of Lizzie’s life is fascinating enough without the necessity of the murder plot the film is shackled to. Why would we want to spend time with the dour Kildare when we could be drinking with the misfits and might-have-beens that surround Lizzie and Dan? Of course, even such an entertaining milieu holds hidden dangers, and Lizzie finds that even those she trusts the most don’t necessarily have her best interests at heart.

Tonally the film is up and down, jumping from melodrama to historical feminist text to grand guignol slaughter-rama without even blinking, which can lead to some shocking moments if you’re not inured to lashings of onscreen claret – and even if you are. We also get a few historical personages cropping up in supporting roles, which might work better on the page than on the screen – after all, it’s one thing for a character to wonder if, say, Karl Marx might have something to do with the murders; it’s quite another to have a fantasy sequence in which the nemesis of the bourgeoisie is grimly sawing off a victim’s head, his prodigious beard flecked with fresh blood.

There’s a lot to enjoy in The Limehouse Golem. Cooke, recently seen in the risible Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, gives a great performance as Elizabeth, allowing us to see the pain, need, and guardedness beneath her extroverted stage persona, and switching it up even further as the plot demands. The whole thing is beautifully shot, and although sometimes the production budget isn’t quite up to the demands of the period setting, the whole thing has an enjoyable Backlot Gothic feel to it. Ultimately, the central enigma isn’t up to much – if you don’t guess it ahead of our intrepid copper, you’ll be ashamed to admit it – but it’s still the best 19th century feminist backstage drama/murder mystery you’ll see this year.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Limehouse Golem