Viktor Khadem has almost given up on life after 18 years inside but on the eve of his release, he is sent to a low-security prison farm in regional Victoria, where a case worker runs a program to rehabilitate broken men by giving them the responsibility for the care of injured birds.
Healing is... wow. It’s not good. But it’s at least not good in a familiar way. The rural setting. The (mostly) oh-so-tasteful score. The burnished cinematography. The characters who each earnestly embody a single idea or defining characteristic, and not one thing more. The result, the first feature for director Craig Monahan (The Interview) since 2004's Peaches, feels made by committee, like a Serious Drama from some 1970s arts lab. It feels Canadian.
The trouble starts with that title, with its suggestion of the drum circle and self-actualisation workshop. I felt a shiver of unease whenever I heard it — partly because it’s faintly portentous, but mostly because I have no ‘spiritual’ side whatsoever. So far as I’m concerned there is no god, life is random and mostly meaningless, and people are bastards when they can be. As a result, the very prospect of ‘Healing’ scared me: I feared this would turn out to be one of those films in which a bunch of white, middle-class men cry and hug each other and whine about how, you know, hard it is, being a guy today.
And in truth, it does feel a little like that. The more egregious signifiers of New Age merchandising (sorry: culture) might be absent — there’s not a crystal or dreamcatcher in sight — but this has all the hallmarks of an encounter session: a group of damaged but ultimately decent men trying to help each other toward the light.
Brooding, Iranian immigrant Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) is transferred to the Won Wron Correctional Centre, a low-security prison farm somewhere in rural Victoria, to serve the final stretch of his sentence; once there, he quickly catches the eye of Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving), the nicest darn correctional officer who ever lived. One day, while on a work-detail (I think; duties are pretty vague at Won Wron), the pair happen upon an injured wedge-tailed eagle, trapped in a wire fence, and when Matt sees that Viktor has an innate rapport with the creature, he sets up an entire mini-aviary for the new inmate to oversee, claiming it will help with his rehabilitation. What a champ!
"The acting is remarkably, arrestingly bad"
Cue slow-motion sequences of Viktor lovingly grooming the feathers of the injured creature — now named Yasmine — while murmuring scraps of desk-calendar wisdom... in Persian, naturally. (‘Never forget who you were, or you lose the way back home.’ ‘All that you are seeking, is seeking you...’) All set to polite, sub-Carl Davis orchestration — and typically intercut with shots of Matt standing a little way off, his arms folded, staring silently at the extraordinary bond between one man and his eagle, a love which surpasseth understanding.
But then, he’s something of a broken bird himself, grieving the loss of, yep, his young child. ‘I need to get over her,’ he mutters, as his tearful wife — who seems to have been parachuted in only for this scene — lays her forehead against his. Carefully framed in the shot behind them is some playground equipment: a swing, a jungle-gym. Just in case we didn’t get it.
No? Still unclear? How about Glynis, the local wildlife expert, warning Viktor that he must prepare Yasmine for her eventual release back into the wild. The bird, she reminds him, is only in the aviary for rehabilitation: she can’t stay there for life. Or Matt explaining to his superior, ‘The longer you leave [releasing the prisoners], the greater the risk of failure when you turn them loose — same as the birds.’ Do you get it now? THESE MEN ARE PRISONERS OF THEMSELVES. THEY MUST FLY FREE.
This clunkiness is not limited to the central metaphor. Much of the dialogue is needlessly expository: no sooner has Viktor arrived at the farm, than two of the inmates are playing Greek Chorus. (‘’He may have been a hard man once,’ sighs one, ‘[but] he’s just an old man now.’) Viktor did time in Pentridge, we learn, and was sentenced for murdering his former best friend. ‘As bad as it gets,’ sighs one of the case workers, shaking her head. Really? Worse than... oh, I don’t know, raping a child? Worse than genocide?
And throughout, the acting is remarkably, arrestingly bad. A scene in which Viktor is confronted by his estranged son, convinced against his better judgment to pay his old man a visit, plays like local theatre — from its stiff, backstory-heavy lines, as the kid fills in his dad in at length on stuff that they both already know, to Don Hany’s anguished pay-off, all clenched fists and screwed-up eyes. TV stalwart Tony Martin, meanwhile, in an underwritten supporting role, has the air of a man turning up to perform community service.
Admittedly, they’re not helped by the set-ups: I can’t imagine that Xavier Samuel read the scene in which he has a deep-and-meaningful with a white owl, with anything but nervous trepidation. (Weirdly, though, the two look almost identical, right down to the hairline.)
It’s prettily photographed, in autumnal tones — by Andrew Lesnie, no less — from an opening image of an eagle soaring above mist-shrouded hills, to extreme close-ups of the aforementioned owl, detailing the patterned beauty of its feathers; and there’s an undeniable sense of wonder in watching birds of prey take flight. Yet for all that, there’s no visual flair on display: most shots feel flat and dead, the compositions are rudimentary and TV-like.
Worse, not one of the prisoners looks or acts like a real crim. On the contrary, they seem like actors — clean-cut, middle-class, with good skin and Netflix subscriptions; compared to this lot, Prisoner: Cell Block H was like Snowtown. Samuel has a wholesome, Home & Away-style hunkiness, and can never seem to disappear into any of the characters he plays, while Anthony Hayes’ Warren — the farm’s supposed standover-man — is about as menacing as a parking fine. (In fairness, the filmmaker seems to sense this, since his character all but disappears from the second half of the story.) Both, though, are better than Mark Leonard Winter, as dreamy simpleton Shane. Of whose performance the less said, the better.
It’s one of those scripts where every character uses every other character’s name in almost every line. Where a sequence showing Viktor getting off a train at Southern Cross Station and walking into a nearby cafe, is for some reason set to pounding drum music more suited to the chase sequence from The French Connection. (Seriously — why?) And where, in lieu of an ending, you get a protracted series of vignettes, each fading to black, as if neither director nor editor could settle on a suitably resonant line or image upon which to close. But how could they? There’s no actual conflict here, and consequently, no drama — just a muddle of good intentions.
There was a Hungarian film from 1970 called The Falcons, by Istvan Gaal, which offered much the same premise as this one: a remote setting, a small group of men training birds of prey. But while the action there was also metaphorical, intended to describe strategies of social control under communism, the link was never stated, merely implied. (For this welcome reticence, we can thank the mechanisms of state censorship.) That film was a masterpiece. Totalitarianism is hard to defend, but it at least made its artists work harder, think better. This one — impeccably liberal, balls-achingly humanist — winds up arguing against the virtues of the very freedom it advocates.