Last Dance (M) 4 stars
Julia Blake, Firass Dirani
Director David Pulbrook
You'll like this if you liked: Paradise Now, Lemon Tree, Waltz with Bashir, TV series Homeland
Politics and current affairs are largely absent in Australian cinema, mirroring the (mis)perception of our country as an irrelevancy at the bottom of the world. (Have we not been invited to sup at the UN high table?)
A rare instance of a filmmaker fully engaged with the world is Robert Connolly, who dealt with corruption in the financial sector in The Bank, middle-class penury in Three Dollars, the murder of Australian journalists in Balibo and the formative years of Julian Assange in the recent TV movie Underground.
The latest addition to the tiny club of local filmmakers looking beyond their own backyard is David Pulbrook, whose gripping, thought-provoking hostage drama Last Dance reveals a filmmaker interested in the impact of politics and history on personal lives.
That fateful collision occurs when a wounded Islamic terrorist named Sadiq (Firass Dirani) invades the home of an elderly Jewish lady (Julia Blake) in the immediate aftermath of an attack on a Melbourne synagogue.
With police cars screaming by outside and helicopters buzzing overhead Sadiq decides to sit tight and wait until he's rescued by his terrorist cell, which he's trying to frantically reach on the phone.
Sadiq binds the hands and feet of Blake's protesting Ulah, watches a television report on the bombing of which he's the only survivor and recites prayers in Arabic to give him strength.
After getting over her initial shock Ulah, who has a fine mind and a sharp tongue, turns on Sadiq, revealing that she lived in Israel for many years and understands his language. Ulah also sneers that she only has contempt for such men as Sadiq who think nothing of killing women and children for a cause.
Sadiq counterattacks by arguing he is not a terrorist but a soldier fighting to free his Palestinian homeland from Jewish occupation. "You are the terrorists," he shouts. "You wanted Palestine without the Palestinians. You think you are better than us."
Gradually, Sadiq and Ulah start to open up to each other about their respective histories and tragedies, revealing a series of parallels that make each look upon the other with new eyes. Indeed, the traumas suffered by both push Ulah into seeing in Sadiq something of her own son, who was killed while serving in the Israeli army.
Last Dance is largely a two-hander and would work equally well as a stage play. However, first-timer Pulbrook draws on his background as an editor to cleverly create the world outside Ulah's home using minimal means, breaking up the extended dialogue scenes with off-screen sound and flashes of action. It's a small film but has the feeling of scale.
Pulbrook and co-writer Terence Hammond also manage to smooth over the film's major stumbling block - the improbability of a Jewish woman turning the fast-fading radical Muslim in the police - through carefully calibrated scripting, nudging things along so subtly that by the end we are fully convinced of what we're seeing.
They are aided by the fine performances from Blake and Dirani. Even though they're separated by decades, the pair have a wonderful rapport. She bringing her characteristic grace and intelligence to the part of Ulah without lapsing into any Holocaust survivor cliches (she feels real and not the product of all those World War II stories); he finding the man beneath the fierce anti-Semite.
Interestingly, one reviewer said the only misstep in Last Dance was a late scene in which the Victorian police behaved in a brutal manner more typical of other countries, which would not ring true for Australian audiences.
As I said at the start of the review, film people in Australia - and this includes reviewers - need to get out of the darkened cinemas and look into the world where you will find plenty of examples of police heavy-handedness, especially in the city where Last Dance takes place. Perhaps the difference is that they say "gidday" before they pull the trigger.