A journey of love and hope, of courage and sacrifice, and one man's miraculous salvation through a life-saving liver transplant. Force of Destiny is a story of survival inspired by Paul Cox's personal experiences and his recent book Tales From the Cancer Ward.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Robert (David Wenham) is a celebrated sculptor who lives and works by himself on a rambling property in the bush outside of Melbourne. His adult daughter Poppy (Hannah Fredericksen) visits from time to time, as does his nervy ex-wife Hannah (an excellent Jacqueline McKenzie). Both women seem keen to keep an eye on him, as if they suspect something’s wrong. A doctor’s visit confirms they’re right: Robert has advanced liver cancer and only months to live. The women hover round even more intensely, but Robert remains emotionally distant, trapped inside his own memories and fears until he connects by chance with a beautiful young Indian marine biologist, Maya (Shahana Goswami). She’s preparing for the death of her elderly uncle who lives on the other side of the world. Robert and Maya begin an end-of-life love affair amid these morbid concerns, but new hope flickers when he’s put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
Force of Destiny is written and directed by the Dutch-born Paul Cox, one of Australia’s most prolific and internationally renowned auteurs, whose more than 40 films include Man of Flowers (1983), My First Wife (1984) and Innocence (2000). Often deeply personal, reflecting his own experiences or those of his friends, Cox’s films are also known for the way they are made – with cobbled together finance and an intimate collective of familiar actors and creative personnel. In all these respects, Force of Destiny is a typical Cox film. The story is inspired by the now-75-year-old’s own experience of being a liver transplant recipient. Introducing the film at the recent opening night of the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival, where it was the featured screening, a very frail Cox gave a moving speech dedicating what may be his last film to his anonymous organ donor. (The souvenir handout was a handsome mix of production stills, film credits and cancer/organ transplant information produced in association with the Cancer Council.)
Force of Destiny bears the poignancy of real life and death concerns. Scenes with doctors, medical imaging equipment and in the cancer ward of the Austin Hospital feel almost unbearably real. We see intimate moments of other lives from Robert’s hospital bed: a dying mother putting on lipstick to say goodbye for the last time to her 12-year-old daughter; a husband decorating his wife’s still-warm body with wildflowers. Robert’s own interior experiences are conveyed through voiceover and grainy, impressionistic Super 8 montages – flocks of birds in the bare winter sky, the face of a beloved child in a home movie. Especially beautiful and effective are the animated sequences taking us inside the human body as silvery cat scans of the liver mutate into glowing images of the moon. It’s in these flourishes that you remember that Cox is an artist and photographer with an eye for beauty and his vision is well-captured here by veteran cinematographer Ian Jones.
More problematic are the stilted everyday conversations between characters, with dialogue sometimes difficult to hear. Wenham’s natural terse stoicism seems at odds with the character and one wonders what another more expressive (European, Cox-like?) actor might have brought to the role. There’s also some confusing storytelling flitting between Melbourne and India – a country that is stereotypically made to be the bearer of superior spiritual insight. The music of a sitar accompanies Maya when she’s on screen and this is just one aspect of the love story that doesn’t feel quite right.
There’s no denying, though, the conviction that Cox brings to his work; his insistence that he’s an artist and his own life is worth mining for inspiration. And that has a force of destiny of its own.