Howard Hawks’ definition of a quality film was simple: three good scenes, no bad ones. I wonder how that definition applies to The Turning, an Australian anthology feature adapted from a collection of short stories by Tim Winton. It’s comprised of 18 independent segments directed by a war chest of behind the camera muscle including Tony Ayres, Warwick Thornton, Justin Kurzel, Jonathan auf der Heide and Robert Connolly, who also served as producer and curator.
The Turning premieres the directorial careers of David Wenham and Mia Wasikowska. The cast includes Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Miranda Otto, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving. The running time clocks in at a whopping 180 minutes. In a sense it is nothing but a collection of scenes, a suite of microcosms about people, places and emotions loosely connected to the masthead.
[pullquote position=”right”]Anthology films are by definition dramatically inconsistent works, so the first major surprise is the tonal consistency between each chapter[/pullquote]. There are some with no dialogue, some with lots of dialogue, some marked by visual restraint and others by visual extravagance. They seem to come together through a kind of beautiful osmosis, the strength of Winton’s writing presumably (I haven’t read the book) fundamental in keeping the different bits part of a congruous package.
The temptation is to name the sections you liked most and the ones you liked least. Whatever the outcome, you’ll exit the cinema with a blizzard of evocative images swirling around your mind: best friends separated by time and circumstance (Warwick Thornton’s Big World), a man wiping urine stains off his memories of being bullied as a kid (Robert Connolly’s Aquifer), two indigenous children rained on by a moonlight-lit mist of sand (Stephen Page’s Sand) and a wife and her mother-in-law falling in a swimming pool and bonding (Simon Stone’s Reunion) to name a few.
The eponymous chapter, directed by Claire McCarthy, showcases a mesmerizing damaged goods performance from Rose Byrne, who invests an achingly deep emotional energy into the Australian equivalent of trailer trash.
Whatever else you’ve seen Byrne in, it’s not this good. Playing Rae, a low rent woman who ponders Christianity for the first time, the 34-year-old dirties that pretty wholesome face, lurches into ocker vernacular, bungs on some scabs and a shiner and contributes a feat of acting so good the words “Oscar deserving” (remember, Judi Dench scored one for roughly eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love) hardly do it justice. At a time in which atheism is the fashionable “religion” and sneering at people of faith makes for smug intellectual entertainment, here is a film – or a section within one – that reminds us of the value of belief systems the oppressed, the poor, the woebegone, can find refuge and salvation in.
The Turning is a film of unwavering grace and purpose, an experience for which critics apply well-worn words such as “inspiring” and “unforgettable” — and, for the record, it is both. Robert Connolly has produced a marquee art picture so grand and aspirational our industry simply cannot accommodate it.
Thus it comes with its own distribution strategy: The Turning will play at select cinemas with an intermission and viewers will take home a glossy 40-page book outlining each chapter and explaining the film’s use of recurring characters, which won’t be apparent at first blush. For our regularly beleaguered national cinema, The Turning — a spectacular achievement in dramatic Australian storytelling — carries with it hope its title may take on a double meaning. That its attempt to bring great art to general audiences will mark some kind of turning point.
To paraphrase Howard Hawks: there are 18 good scenes, no bad ones.
The Turning had its world premiere on August 3 at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It will be released theatrically September 26.