Seventeen directors collaborate on a collection of short stories by author Tim Winton.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Tim Winton’s The Turning is Australia’s best-selling collection of short stories. Set mostly in West Australia’s lonely seaside towns, the book, published in 2005, contains 17 loosely linked stories full of haunted men, scarred women, endangered children, and moments of mystery and spiritual transformation. To adapt the collection into a single cinematic event, let alone with each chapter made by a different team of creators and actors, seems a grandly ambitious goal. Yet the mastermind behind the project, director and producer Robert Connolly (Balibo, The Bank), has succeeded not only in bringing together surely the largest assembly of Australian filmmaking and acting talent ever involved in a single project, but also in producing a work that maintains a remarkably consistent tone throughout – one of melancholy, regret, and longing.
Connolly knows he’s asking a great deal of the audience, so he suggests we approach the film as a 'group exhibition’.
That may be part of the problem – three hours is a long time to spend in the presence of such pain and ambiguity, without the swell of a forward-thrusting narrative to carry you through.
Perhaps it’s coincidental that many of the standout pieces in the collection are written and directed by women; these are the ones that bring welcome warmth in contrast to the chilly tales of masculine repression. The most wonderful is 'The Turning’, written and directed by Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City). Rose Byrne gives a revelatory performance playing a haggard and abused wife living in a caravan park, where she is transformed by a friendship with a shiny 'born again’ Christian (Miranda Otto). It’s tragic, funny and moving. Other light notes include: 'On Her Knees’, written and directed by Ashlee Page (The Kiss) – featuring Susie Porter as a proud housecleaner accused of theft; Jub Clerc’s 'Abbreviation’ – in which an Aboriginal teen has his first erotic experience with a girl with a missing finger; and Mia Wasikowska’s directorial debut, 'Long, Clear View’ – a stylish and amusing tale of a boy’s obsessive compulsions.
The cinematography, music, sound design and performances are uniformly excellent – and that’s not just code for 'Australian dud’. But Connolly knows he’s asking a great deal of the audience, so he suggests we approach the film as a 'group exhibition’. The idea of coming prepared for Art rather than pure entertainment is signposted right at the start, with the first of the 18 chapters (yes, an extra one has been added to Winton’s 17) being a sepia-toned sand animation by Marieka Walsh, narrated with a gravelly recitation of T.S. Eliot’s poem 'Ash Wednesday’. Then there are chapters like 'Immunity’ – a piece of modern and highly abstract dance, written and performed by Circa Contemporary Circus and directed by Yaron Lifschitz. Choreographer Stephen Page also makes his film directorial debut, bringing rhythm and sensuality to the heart-stopping 'Sand’ – a tale of two children playing a deadly game at the beach.
Acknowledging the challenges of the viewing experience, Connolly’s specialised cinema screenings of the film from 26 September will include intermissions, while viewers will also be armed with a glossy 40-page program to assist with the complexity of the project. A large part of this complexity derives from recurring characters across the shorts being played by different actors – for example, central protagonist Vic Lang is played by eight actors both Indigenous and white, including Joseph Pedley, Harrison Gilbertson, Richard Roxburgh and Dan Wyllie; while Gail Lang is played at times by Libby Tanner, Cate Blanchett and Kate Mulvaney.
Does it work? Perhaps it’s best to give the final word to Winton himself, who writes in the program, 'Anyone mad enough to try it deserved a crack. And the result? Who can say? Not me." He then doffs his hat – and so might we – to those who defy convention, 'in a time when filmmakers might be forgiven for simply conforming."