Thomas (Matt Noble) loses his daughter in a hit and run accident while camping in the forest. The logging truck driver, Luke (Daniel Henshall), is sent to jail for five years, but in the eyes of Thomas, justice has not been served. During those five years, Thomas carefully plots his revenge by going undercover at the forestry company where Luke used to work...

 

1.5

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: A couple of years ago, Australia’s mining industry got a free kick with Red Dog, which was primarily financed by a Rio Tinto subsidiary to supposedly honour “true blue (and white) Aussie workers” who toil in an industry that the Utah Mining company used to describe as the “backbone of the country”. Nowhere near as cheerful, the heart of Kasimir Burgess’ Fell dwells at the other end of the political spectrum, with an emphasis on a conservationist approach to tree logging. Far more intricate than Red Dog, this green-tinged drama does flirt with doing something more sophisticated as it plays along. But really the film is only playing – and with a stacked deck at that.

The set up is this: Matthew Nable plays Thomas, an urban man with a fondness for Victoria’s forests. While camping, his young daughter goes for a frolic and finds herself in the hurtling path of a logging truck driven by Luke, a forestry worker (played by Daniel Henshall). Having injured the girl, Luke then turns his accident into a hit-and-run crime by pushing the truck’s accelerator just as Thomas runs screaming onto the road where his daughter lies oozing blood and losing life.

A messy series of fragmented scenes ensue which confuse as well as advance the narrative. The audience learn that Luke, knowing he will be sent to jail, drives himself to impregnate his unwilling girlfriend. Then, over an unspecified (until much later) time, Luke spends his days in a cell recording bedtime stories for the resultant girl as she grows up not knowing her imprisoned father.

While Luke does his jail stretch, Thomas returns to the scene of the truck driver’s crime with a new beard and a new identity to become a forestry worker himself. Apparently, the plan is to position himself as part of Luke’s logging team before Luke returns to reclaim his old job. It’s a potentially powerful scenario… until you realise that the two men must have seen each other during criminal investigations or via the media. Beard or no beard, Luke would recognise Thomas instantly. Contemptuously, Fell rushes through its set up, hoping the audience is not smart enough to see its narrative sleight of hand.

Thomas’ intention emerges when the logging team leader asks the city slicker “Where’s your rage, man?” after the latter tries to demonstrate his skills with an axe. The film reveals exactly where the rage is as Thomas hits the tree with gusto while fantasising about applying the axe blade to a human being. This once gentle man has revenge on his mind.

Around this time the film begins to flood with Biblical imagery: rapturous self-mutilation, a bedside crucifix and talk of angels which drives home the idea behind the title, Fell (fallen angel, geddit?). We’re being prepared for some good Old Testament, “an eye for an eye” malevolence. (Or is that a girl for a girl?)

At the same time, Fell uses its love of nature to inspire awe with images of ants walking along bark fragments and sap that seeps like the young girl’s blood. The film also spends considerable time showcasing trees swaying in the audible wind as they gather oxygen to perform their function as the planet’s lungs. Annoyingly, this metaphor is constantly being reinforced by having the characters spend much of their time breathing through their mouth, creating a moronic panting on the soundtrack.

Fell mines a deep vein of Good vs. Evil symbolism, but rather than take the icons and run with them, the images do little but pad out the film’s running time. Instead of pushing past politics to confront moral issues, Fell strings the audience along with a “will he or won’t he?” dance. And unfortunately the answer to that question is never really in doubt.

The casting of the cheerful Daniel Henshall as the logger who dearly loves his daughter works well for a while, but Matthew Nable is only allowed one note: before and after his character’s life-shattering experience. Blink and you’ll miss Jacqueline McKenzie completely.

A bolder and far more interesting film could have emerged if Thomas had adhered to his Old Testament stirrings, but the director and his scriptwriter Natasha Pincus prove too timid to truly challenge audience expectations. The dramatic decision to play ‘nice’ lacks daring because it never really questions the inherent decency of all greenies. As a result, by its finale, Fell has become a limp Cape Fear for conservationists that’s as guilty of pandering to its niche audience as Red Dog pandered to the mining industry.

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