Film
Felony (M)
4 stars
Joel Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson
DIRECTOR MATT SAVILLE
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS

Matt Saville will never be mentioned in the same breath as Baz Luhrmann but for me this most underappreciated of Australian directors has a cinematic style as rich and stimulating as his flashier contemporary.

Jai Courtney and Joel Edgerton. Picture: Mark Rogers

This lack of attention is because Saville works mainly in television. He has done sterling work on series such as The Secret Life of Us, Cloudstreet, The Slap and the acclaimed Josh Thomas show Please Like Me, but the medium, despite being in the pop culture vanguard, has kept the focus on writers, not directors.

However, I would argue the style he's honed on TV - his ability to wring emotion and meaning from the most subtle shifts in narrative and character - is what made his debut feature Noise (2007) so fascinating, and his latest, Felony, the most accomplished and compelling Australian movie this year.

Saville also proves the perfect match for Joel Edgerton who not only provides an uncommonly mature screenplay dealing with hot-button contemporary issues - mateship, alcohol abuse, institutional corruption, casual racism and ethical choices - but arguably the strongest performance of his booming career.

After a boozy celebration following a spectacular drug bust, in which he heroically took a bullet in the line of duty that left him sore but standing, Edgerton's Victorian police detective Malcolm Toohey finds himself facing an RBT.

But instead of blowing into the little machine Malcolm flashes his badge and drops a code word that allows him to drive on untested.

It's the first of several bad decisions that will shake his world.

Driving on, Malcolm accidentally knocks a paperboy off his bike. He rings an ambulance but instead of owning up to the accident he tells police who arrive on the scene, including Tom Wilkinson's hard-bitten veteran Carl and Jai Courtenay's by-the-book rookie Jim, that he found the boy sprawled on the road.

Everyone swallows the story because Malcolm is regarded as a top cop, one who is willing to put his body on the line. Indeed, he's celebrated as a hero for saving the boy who ends up in hospital in a coma and fighting for his life.

None of this sits right with Malcolm who is essentially a good man.

However, when he announces he wants to come clean, Wilkinson's battle-scarred Carl and Malcolm's highly protective wife (Melissa George) urge him to keep his trap shut, that there is no point to telling the truth.

Felony seems as if it's going to evolve into a twisty police thriller, replete with a couple of simmering sub-plots dealing with a paedophile and a drug investigation.

However, these serve not to crank up the tension but to thicken the drama, to provide a counterpoint to Malcolm's struggle to do the right thing. How is it possible to be a good man in a world in which doing the wrong thing is so easy and in which evil flourishes?

After The Rover, which Edgerton wrote with David Michod, my estimation of the actor's writing abilities nosedived (it is still for me the year's worst movie).

But in Felony he knits the narrative elements through beautifully, touching lightly but deftly on Jim's attraction to the injured boy's attractive young mother and his determination to expose Malcolm's criminal negligence, Carl's obsession with putting away a dangerous paedophile and Malcolm's wife's despair at seeing the future of her family in jeopardy.

While Felony doesn't have the multi-narrative dimension of Lantana or the series The Slap, it shares with these celebrated dramas a similar seriousness of purpose and willingness to dig into areas of Australian life that our more feel-good features tend to avoid.

Indeed, Edgerton and Saville have such confidence in their material that the final stages are free of narrative gimmicks.

Instead, the film burrows into Malcolm's shredded soul, with Edgerton communicating his character's loss of self in such a convincing manner you cannot believe he will ever be fully redeemed despite a heartbreaking encounter with the boy's mother.

I've seen Felony twice now and it improved on a second viewing, with the details and themes knitting together nicely.

But just one viewing should be enough to make this a richly deserved and much-needed Australian success.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West