It is an unsung Australian great
All the talk about classic Australian cinema inevitably falls upon the films that travelled to success here and abroad, marking themselves as worthy of remembering for the influence they had on future filmmakers and for the timeless ways they explored cultural issues of Australia. Whether it’s Mad Max or Muriel’s Wedding, Picnic at Hanging Rock or Wake in Fright, these are titles that everybody knows about and are rightly hailed as essential films from our cinematic history.
But Carl Schultz’s Careful, He Might Hear You deserves to be spoken of in just as glowing terms. Despite winning eight AFI Awards and being adapted from a popular and award-winning Sumner Locke Elliott novel of the same name, this 1983 film is rarely spoken of in discussions of our greatest films. Perhaps that is because it is a decidedly feminine film, one that is more concerned with issues of class, money, and family. It is a period film that revels in sumptuous costumes amid decadent sets and divine cinematography of Oscar-winning DP John Seale (Mad Max: Fury Road). It is a little film about big emotions and while it doesn’t offer the gut-busting laughs of Priscilla or the intensity of Animal Kingdom, it is no less a crowning achievement for the local industry.
Australian cinema often speaks to class, if mostly indirectly through the prolific wave of crime films that were popular in the 1990s and 2000s like The Boys and Snowtown. It is far less common for the dynamics of the upper class to be tackled head on like they are in this film. And rarely still for them to be juxtaposed so keenly to those of the blue collar working class and with a female point-of-view.
One of the film’s greatest achievements is the very real discussions it has surrounding the separation of classes and the benefits of each. As the worlds of the refined and wealthy Aunt Vanessa from London clash with her sister’s more humble means, and the life of their orphan nephew PS hovers precariously in the middle, Careful, He Might Hear You manages to succeed at not stereotyping either. Instead it smartly and carefully details the many layers of these sisters and offering audiences refreshing insights into the worlds they inhabit.
Wendy Hughes’ best performance (and a child performance to remember)
The late Wendy Hughes was a truly special figure of Australian cinema, and one of its brightest stars from the late 1970s onward. Watching her swan around in beautiful gowns, fur-trimmed coats, and extravagant hats is just the cherry on top of what is a deeply haunting lead performance as the snooty upper-crust London visitor who crashes the suburban lives of her sister.
In fact, the entire film is full of powerful performances including Robyn Nevin as Aunt Lila, John Hargreaves as PS’s MIA alcoholic father, and Nicholas Gledhill as the young boy trapped in the middle of domestic squabbles. At only seven years of age at the time of filming, Gledhill’s performance is particularly incredible, and his performance is routinely cited as one of the best ever child performances. Able to communicate deep wells of pain and distress, particularly in the sequences at a boarding school, is astonishing. The film opens with him in bed eavesdropping on a conversation about his future, a sequence that lends the film its title; little PS is always spoken about, but thanks to his performance he is as real and multi-dimensional as the adults.
Imagine it with Elizabeth Taylor
Reportedly, American stage and film director Joshua Logan wanted to direct an adaptation of Elliott’s book starring none other than Elizabeth Taylor as far back as the 1960s, the decade of the book’s first publishing. It obviously never eventuated, but just try watching this film with that nugget of information planted in your brain and not picture it working completely.