Aussie cast shine in The Turning

Mark Naglazas
Rose Byrne in The Turning. Picture: Supplied

FILM
The Turning (MA15+) 4.5 stars
Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Rose Byrne, Susie Porter, Miranda Otto, Kate Mulvaney
DIRECTOR ROBERT CONNOLLY and 17 others
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

You will like this if you liked Short Cuts, Lantana, Babel, Blessed, Cloud Atlas.

Tim Winton is such a big draw that his plays have been packing them into the State Theatre Centre despite falling well short of the quality of his novels and short stories.

Indeed, critics too have bowed before the Winton myth. They've been twisting themselves into such crazy shapes trying to say nice things about his trilogy of plays for Black Swan they have virtually invented a new gymnastics event for the next Olympics.

So it's not surprising moviemakers have been circling Winton's critically acclaimed, hugely popular books like the sharks that lurk in so many of his salt-encrusted tales.

The problem is that Winton's novels are hard to translate to cinema - not simply because of the poetic language and rich inner lives of his characters but because so many of his people are trapped by their pasts. Movie audiences seem to require forward momentum in their heroes, a quality invariably lacking in Winton's damaged souls.

With this in mind The Turning, which is a compendium of the author's characters, themes and settings, might well have joined That Eye, The Sky (1994) and In The Winter Darker (1998) as another turgid Winton adaptation, well intentioned but lacking the life and insight animated by language that finds beauty in our vernacular.

Producer and director Robert Connolly was faced with the problem of unifying the 17 loosely connected tales collected in The Turning, of which the major thread deals with lawyer Vic Lang and his father, a policeman in the town of Angelus (a thinly disguised Albany).

Rather than imposing a traditional structure on The Turning, as might have been expected, Connolly went in the opposite direction, hiring 17 different directors to tackle a story apiece and using different actors to play the same recurring characters.

Ironically, Connolly's encouragement of difference and individuality has resulted in a work of startling unity, coherence and power, a collection of short films made by directors who've collided their unique cinematic visions with a Winton tale, yet each clicks into place, like pieces in a dazzling jigsaw. Most significantly, each of the filmmakers has injected so much energy and cinematic intelligence into their assigned story that stories about trapped, damaged characters come alive in a way I've not seen in a dramatised Winton work.

David Wenham uses his experience to elicit fine performances from Hugo Weaving and Josh McConville in Commission, the most memorable of the Vic Lang stories; choreographer Stephen Page uses striking visual language in the beach-set tragedy Sand; and Justin Kurzel of Snowtown fame brings his facility for naturalism and grotesquerie to Boner McPharlin's Moll.

Most surprising is the contribution from first-timer Mia Wasikowska who brings a Wes Anderson-like or Aki Kaurismaki deadpan quirkiness to Long, Clear View, the story of the young Vic Lang and his obsession with his father's life that will reverberate to the cathartic ending.

The Vic Lang thread is the heart of The Turning and has been beautifully handled in all its variations. However, the most memorable entry is the stand-alone title story by Perth-based director Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City), who draws an astonishing performance from a startlingly de-glammed Rose Byrne as an abused fisherman's wife who finds unlikely succour in Jesus Christ.

The astounding performance of Byrne, who will win awards for her 12-minute turn in a three-hour film, point the way to all those filmmakers who are lining up to adapt Winton.