By Carolyn Lake.
Fred Schepisi’s latest film, The Eye of the Storm, opened this month in select theatres around Australia and enjoyed a warm reception for its international debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is an adaptation of the 1973 novel by Nobel prizing-winning Australian author, Patrick White. Adapted for the screen by Judy Morris (Happy Feet), the story follows they dying days of Sydney matriarch Elizabeth Hunter, played by Charlotte Rampling, as “the children” return home from their lives overseas where both have reached minor celebrity and near-empty bank accounts. The son, Sir Basil played by Geoffrey Rush, is an actor from London’s West End, knighted for his talents but nevertheless haunted by his failure to dazzle in his recent role as King Lear (a not incidental intertext). Daughter Dorothy or, Princess de Lascabanes, played by Judy Davis, married into minor French nobility but was left with little besides her title following her subsequent divorce. Despite increasing delirium and weakness, Elizabeth continues to control and demoralise her children, as they watch their inheritance being withered away.
The story demonstrates an ongoing concern with performance and theatricality, as each character adorns various masks and costumes and to perform their duties. This is bolstered by the opening and closing of curtains which bookend the film. As is soon discovered, beneath many of the masks emerges decay, as is figured throughout the film through, for example, several close-ups of rotting food. No characters come out unscathed in The Eye of the Storm and it is a testament to the fine performances of the lead trio that they’re nevertheless captivating in their roles which are tremendously unlikable and, like White’s novels, largely interior in their focus. Davis in particular shines in her portrayal of the uptight Dorothy who reveals a past of hurt and heartbreak. Schepisi also delivers a solid supporting cast and fantastic performances, notably from Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and Alexandra Schepisi (F. Schepisi’s daughter) as Lotte and Flora respectively, who work for and attend to Elizabeth’s whims.
As Elizabeth nears deaths she continually returns to an experience that occurred twenty years earlier in the literal eye of the storm. While these scenes are beautiful in their own right, their poignancy is never quite realised within the present-tense narrative. Rampling is nevertheless divine and expertly balances both the ferocity and frailty of Elizabeth in both of her incarnations.
The Eye of the Storm is a fine film and will hopefully have cleared the path for more filmmakers to approach White’s work. It has been received well critically so far in festivals and locally in Australia, though I imagine its potential audience might be older than many key markets and this could prohibit wider international distribution. However, should you get the chance it’s worth a watch for the performances alone.
Carolyn Lake is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.