In Sydney’s Centennial Park, two nurses, a
housekeeper and a solicitor attend to Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling), while her son (Geoffrey Rush) and daughter (Judy Davis) sit at her deathbed. Elizabeth has held a firm grip on society, her staff and her
children, but the fading woman must now determine her time to die.

Lust, lies and envy laid bare in adaptation of Patrick White’s novel.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Cruelty, avarice, jealousy, deception, insecurity and lust"¦ all those vices and more are nakedly revealed in The Eye of the Storm, director Fred Schepisi’s handsome adaptation of the Patrick White novel.

There’s a lot to admire about Schepisi’s first Australian film since 1988’s Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark) and his first venture since the acclaimed 2005 HBO two-part telemovie Empire Falls.

The performances from Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis, the rarely seen Helen Morse, John Gaden and Robyn Nevin are exquisite.

But they’re impersonating characters whose faults and foibles are painfully obvious and the film invites the audience to enter a world – Sydney’s salubrious Eastern Suburbs in 1972 – where almost no one could be described as a lovable screw-up.

It’s an intelligent, well-crafted and, at times, moving and waspishly funny movie for which the level of enjoyment and engagement will probably depend on your desire to observe privileged people and the hired help behaving badly.

White wrote more than a dozen novels but until now only his only opus to reach the screen was the screenplay of director Jim Sharman’s The Night, the Prowler and that was in 1978. The Eye of the Storm was published in 1973, the same year White became the first Australian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve not read that book but I suspect it’s symptomatic of why his work has largely been regarded as too challenging by filmmakers: Almost all the characters are highly flawed and disagreeable, perhaps reflecting White’s misanthropy.

Adapted by Judy Morris, the film features Rampling as Mrs. Elizabeth Hunter, the formidable but ailing matriarch of a highly dysfunctional family. Bedridden in her palatial home in Sydney’s Centennial Park, she’s fussed over by two nurses, a housekeeper and her dutiful solicitor. Her expatriate son Sir Basil (Geoffrey Rush), a London-based actor, and daughter Dorothy (Judy Davis), an impoverished princess in Paris whose French husband abandoned her, make the pilgrimage to her deathbed.

It’s readily apparent that her ungrateful offspring see their main mission as ensuring they get their hands on her considerable inheritance. And that Mrs. Hunter has long had troubled relationships with both, although she dotes on her son and calls her daughter 'Pigeon.’ In turn, brother and sister turn on each other.

Rampling is chillingly real as an imperious, cruel and manipulative dragon lady although only when Mrs. Hunter approaches death, and when she flashes back to her younger self and the events leading to the violent storm, does she evoke any sympathy.

Davis has spent much of her career playing neurotic, uptight and intense characters so Dorothy fits her like a glove, and one can fully understand why she mourns her 'barren life". Considering that Rampling is nine years older than Davis, the former’s make-up effects are so good they are convincing as mother and daughter.

It may not be a stretch for Rush to affect the airs of a vain but insecure thespian but he also superbly conveys Sir Basil’s abiding loneliness and inability to express love or affection.

Gaden, too, is fine as the family’s lawyer whose loyalties are conflicted, at one point exploding with rage. As his wife, Nevin is utterly devastating in one scene in which she’s taunted by Mrs. Hunter.

Morse excels in the difficult role of the housekeeper Lotte, a Holocaust survivor who delights in dressing up and singing and dancing cabaret numbers for her amused employer. However, the motivation for a horrifying incident late in the narrative remains murky.

Alexandra Schepisi, the director’s daughter, demolishes any suggestions of nepotism with a poignant performance as Flora, a lonely but calculating nurse who seeks to exploit Sir Basil.

Colin Friels has an amusing cameo as a scheming, randy politician and aspiring Prime Minister clearly modelled on Bob Hawke (even down to their Oxford degrees), who lunges at Dorothy in the back of his chauffer-driven car.

Melinda Doring’s sumptuous production design and Ian Baker’s rich cinematography are other plusses but Paul Grabowsky’s jaunty, jazz-influenced score sometimes jars with the film’s shifting moods.

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1 hour 54 min
In Cinemas 15 September 2011,
Wed, 04/25/2012 - 11