Irina has left her native Russia to support her mother and daughter who finds herself involved in a life of prostitution. Gloria and Barry are married. She is a tele-evangelist with a thriving church franchise. Barry, a biblical scholar, is looking for the light. After years of supporting Gloria, he needs out. By confiding in Irina, Barry finds the strength to share a better life.
It is not unusual for filmmakers for overstay their welcome with regard to themes that obsess them.
Steven Spielberg’s child’s-eye sentimentality peaked brilliantly in E.T., yet grated with Hook; Martin Scorsese’s Big Apple-infatuation drove Taxi Driver, but by the time Gangs Of New York rolled around, he struggled to make the city relevant; it was a setting, nothing more.
Dutch-born/Australian-owned director Paul Cox has created some extraordinary films, the best of which explore the universal themes of sex, love and the artistic pursuit, with a splash of religion thrown in to mix it up a bit – Lonely Hearts (1982), Man Of Flowers (1983), My First Wife (1984), Golden Braid (1990) and Human Touch (2004) are under-seen, internationally-recognised works of a cinematic artist.
His latest film, the independently-funded, DV-shot drama Salvation indicates that Cox is as persistent as ever to explore the convergence of religious fervour, fresh sex as an old man’s liberating motivator and the shallow theatricality of marriage. But he has played this hand too many times before, and with far more ambition and maturity.
Bruce Myles plays Barry, the middle-aged, cuckolded husband of Gloria Daye (Wendy Hughes), a Hillsong-like televangelist who runs the couple’s profitable prophesising with an icy coolness and hollow-eyed offsider (Kim Gyngell). Barry has turned to Irina (Natalia Novikova), a Russian prostitute with a heart of gold (mmm...) who, despite an obvious depth of character and an intelligence that far surpasses any other caricature in the film, falls in love with old-man Barry. Her pimp (played with a moustache-twirling over-eagerness by Alex Menglet) imposes violent control over Irina, yet under-estimates Barry, leading to a spectacularly silly climax that only exists to play out Cox’s grey-haired fairy-tale in the most ludicrous manner.
The commercial appeal of Paul Cox’s films peaked in 1983, when one of Australia’s big three distributors, Village Roadshow, took a gamble on Cox’s Norman Kaye-starrer Man Of Flowers, pumping it into their new suburban multiplexes on the back of a sweaty-palm marketing campaign that emphasised its old-man/young-muse element. 26 years later, and with a catalogue of fascinating and complex films to his credit, Cox’s insistence on pursuing the same fantasy seriously undermines his reputation as an Australian film auteur of any note and ensures his latest work scores one cinema in its Sydney run.
The misguided adulterer is an archetype that filmmakers have explored with considerable insight, most famously in both Stanley Kubrick’s and Adrian Lyne’s versions of Nabokov’s Lolita. As recently as last year, when Nash Edgerton’s The Square detailed a suburban husband’s life spiralling towards oblivion due to an illicit sexual compulsion, the apparent brain-numbing affect of the mid-life crisis has ensured the adulterer is a compelling on-screen character. But Cox infuses Barry with a naivety and smugness that does nothing for a storyline that asks the viewer to sympathise with the philanderer.
What truly undermines everyone’s effort to create a worthwhile film are the strained attempts at both satirical- and character-based humour. Never a Cox strongpoint, ham-fisted attempts at jocularity include cameos from an eye-rolling Aden Young (who also serves as the film’s editor) and the director himself; they are excruciating and self-indulgent; Barry Humphries\' bit part serves no discernible purpose.
Mix it all up with a pimp-on-hooker rape sequence ('Use a condom, for your own sake!!") and two wheezing St-Bernards, and Salvation proves to be a tasteless folly of grand proportions from a filmmaker struggling to find new relevance in a fixation that for too long has fuelled his art.