One could very safely argue that – outside of major figureheads like Peter Weir, Baz Luhrmann, Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford and so on – that pretty much any Australian director could easily qualify as an Unsung Auteur. Local filmmakers are very, very far from being household names in Australia, but even when operating within that unfortunate paradigm, there are unquestionably many directors who have lived and worked in this country for years without receiving the continued recognition that they deserve. There are also several Australian directors who have acquired early success and well-deserved praise (including from highly regarded international commentators), but who were then never really offered the attendant opportunities that such major acclaim should have inspired.
A fine example of this unfortunate trend is writer/director Ann Turner, whose stunning 1989 debut Celia found itself happily tossed and flipped on a wild ocean of praise, with critics from around the world wading in to hurl well-deserved but hyperbolic plaudits in Turner’s direction. While this should have seen Turner go onto a prolific career of similarly strong work both here and overseas, it instead prompted only a handful of subsequent films (all rock-solid features boasting strong performances and a resounding sense of originality), and a later-in-life career shift, with Ann Turner reconfiguring her creative impulses and re-inventing herself as a highly successful novelist.
While studying at Melbourne’s Swinburne Film School, Ann Turner made her directorial debut with the 1981 short film, Flesh And Glass, a dense, moody piece revolving around a deeply complicated love triangle. From there, she eventually moved on to her first feature in 1989 with Celia, an extraordinary coming of age drama now incorrectly tagged – via decades of inaccurate and inexplicable marketing decisions – as a horror film, unfairly positioned alongside other “monster child” concoctions like The Bad Seed, The Good Son, The Omen and so on. Ingeniously written, imaginatively directed and sensitively told, Celia, however, is so, so much more than just a fright flick.
Set in stifling, conservative 1950s Australia, Celia sees the nine-year-old title character (brilliantly played by gifted child actress Rebecca Smart, who rose to fame opposite Bryan Brown in the TV mini-series The Shiralee) retreat into a dark, bizarre fantasy world after a series of betrayals and indignities are visited upon her by the often cruel adult world. Set against an era of communist paranoia – not to mention a rabbit plague that will see Celia experience even more tragedy – Celia is a rich and fascinating investigation not just into the internal horrors of childhood, but also into an Australia believed long gone, but which still occasionally rears its ugly head.
The film’s violent climax is truly shocking, but Celia is a profoundly universal film in terms of its themes. “The main interpretation that I had on the film’s release, and travelling internationally to film festivals, was how universal the experience of childhood is – crossing borders and generations,” Ann Turner told Senses Of Cinema in 2017. “At the time, that took me a little by surprise, as I’d written so specifically about an Australian childhood. I was at a screening of Celia in Melbourne, and a viewer in his early twenties from the Philippines commented on how similar it was to his childhood. That really blew me away. I absolutely loved that comment. Certainly when I watch the film after all this time, it’s that freedom of running around in long summer holidays with gangs of friends, and the intensity of feelings towards people, pets and things you love – and that upset you, sometimes deeply – that resonates with me and takes me back again to my own childhood.”
A truly fascinating and incredibly assured debut feature, Celia earned mountains of international critical praise (garnering favourable comparisons to everything from The 400 Blows to Lord Of The Flies), and still pops up today when discussions turn to “lost gems” and Australian horror films, to which the film only really owes a marginal allegiance. By rights, Ann Turner should have been offered the opportunity to expand on her ideas, or should have at least been whisked off to Hollywood and whatever that might have entailed. Instead, she directed for TV and penned the screenplay for Stephen Wallace’s strong 1992 take on Blanche D’Alpuget’s novel Turtle Beach.
Turner eventually made her follow-up to Celia with 1993’s Hammers Over The Anvil, which was inspired by the much loved autobiographical writings of Alan Marshall, most famous for his book I Can Jump Puddles. And while Celia was unfairly thrown into the horror genre, so Hammers Over The Anvil is frequently and incorrectly branded an Aussie “horse movie”, alongside the storied likes of The Man From Snowy River. Hammers Over The Anvil, however, is another dark rumination on childhood and the shattering of youthful innocence, as young Alan (Alexander Outhred) is thrown into emotional turmoil upon witnessing the sexual relationship of the horseman that he hero worships (Russell Crowe) and the much older British beauty (Charlotte Rampling) upon whom he has a devastating crush. Criminally underrated, Hammers Over The Anvil is powerful both in its depiction of childhood innocence lost, and of a heated (the sex scenes between Crowe and Rampling are very hot indeed) but socially unacceptable adult relationship. The film also showcased Turner’s gifts for strong storytelling, expertly recreating historical detail, and getting the best out of her actors.
After ingeniously applying her own quirks and concerns to the seemingly traditionalist storytelling of Hammers Over The Anvil, Turner went completely left of centre with 1994’s Dallas Doll. Starring then hot and controversial American comic Sandra Bernhard (famed for her friendship with Madonna; her outspoken on-stage persona; and her excellent performances in The King Of Comedy and Inside Monkey Zetterland) as a fiery golf pro who seduces and sleeps her way through an Australian suburban family, Dallas Doll is wilfully perverse and unusual, but now largely forgotten, except for the continual brouhaha that Bernhard allegedly caused on set. Though there are a few unsuccessful moments (particularly those involving a UFO landing), the film’s amazing production design, unusual characters, and daring approach to on-screen sexual relationships mark Dallas Doll as a truly fascinating curio.
While also working as Creative Development Officer at Film Victoria, Senior Script Consultant at The Australian Film Commission, and lecturer in film at The Victorian College Of The Arts, Turner’s next feature film didn’t come until 2006 with Irresistible. As with Celia and Hammers Over The Anvil, Turner’s last feature film was also sold somewhat reductively upon its release, with the film painted as a standard sexy domestic thriller. As with all of Turner’s work, however, there’s a lot more going on with Irresistible than that.
Boasting a great cast, this truly underrated flick tracks unhappy couple Sophie (Susan Sarandon) and Craig (Sam Neill). The deeply troubled Sophie becomes increasingly paranoid about her husband’s new co-worker Mara (Emily Blunt), eventually devolving into stalking her and believing that she has been unduly influencing her family. A strong, moody, and intense drama, Irresistible is another fine example of Turner’s uncanny ability to subvert genre and surprise audiences.
With no film since 2006’s Irresistible, Ann Turner has instead been expressing herself creatively as a highly successful author with two bestselling literary thrillers – 2015’s The Lost Swimmer and 2016’s Out Of The Ice – to her credit. With rumours circulating about cinematic adaptations, one can hope that Ann Turner will be back behind the camera soon. With her gifts for telling unusual but relatable stories, her knack for crafting fascinating characters, her singular talent for working with actors, and her skill in dealing with difficult themes like gender, identity, cultural oppression, coming of age and sexuality, the Australian film landscape would be much richer if Ann Turner was playing a bigger role in it.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.