Three blind mice
Every decade seems produces one vintage year for Australian cinema. In 2009 local film-buffs will be cellaring a bumper crop.
This year we have seen a burst of new voices and new energy. Not only do we have two potential classics in Beautiful Kate and Balibo but entirely fresh perspectives on Australian life, including two gangster films out of the emerging Arab sub-culture.
Add actor-director Matt Newton's debut Three Blind Mice to this list.
This is the first time we have seen a movie about Aussie soldiers set during the war on terror. The film provides a welcome opportunity to revisit our central myths about Anzac and Australian masculinity, set in an era when Gallipoli and Kakoda pilgrimages have intensified in cultural significance.
The story unfolds like a sped up version of an 18th century picaresque novels - Don Juan or Fielding's Tom Jones - as three Aussie sailors take one night shore leave in Sydney and roll from one catastrophe to the next. All the action is compressed into less than 12 hours.
Perhaps this will surprise Australians, who know Matt best as the TV-acting son of small-screen royalty Bert and Patti: Newton is a very talented screenwriter. The dialogue is sharp and witty. The camera lingers long on set-piece conversations. But far from being self-indulgent, this builds a sense of realism. You know these characters and can believe they speak this way.
From the writing to the editing to camera-work, Three Blind Mice displays the potential talents behind this film. This film has found well-deserved recognition on the international festival circuit. Newton won the FIPRESCI Prize at the London Film Festival and Best Screenplay in Thessaloniki. Locally it won a jury commendation at the Sydney film festival.
The supporting cast list reads like a who's who of Australia: Pia Miranda, Barry Otto, Jackie Weaver, a finale encore by Charles 'Bud' Tigwall. Actors of the calibre of Marcus Graham and Alex Dimitriades are given mere cameos in a poker scene.
It's no surprise then, that all performances are top-shelf. The star is newcomer Ewen Leslie. He plays brooding Sam, tortured by his time at sea in more ways than one, with enough sweetness to win the viewer's sympathy.
But for all this, the film is missing something. Perhaps it is a soul.
Newton creates a telling moral hierarchy that captures the individualistic ethic of this age. Self-pleasuring trumps self-sacrifice. As he told the Guardian in a recent interview:
“I was thinking about having that truncated period of time before you are going to go and do something phenomenal - like fight in a war. and what you would want to do to fill those last hours, or what you’d have to do,” he says. "I guess I also wanted to show what young men should be doing with their evenings as opposed to going and getting killed or having to kill someone else - making mistakes, getting in trouble, meeting girls, playing cards, trying to figure out what it is to be a man.”
What men should be doing? Hiring prostitutes? Gambling? Thieving?
This may well be a fairly realistic account of a night out by a group of young Aussie blokes. But it hardly provides wisdom - or even insight - into what it takes to be a man.
There is no honour, no duty, and not much love, in the world of Three Blind Mice. This is very strange in a movie that teases the viewer with the mirage of Gallipoli. Newton says his intention is to explore Australian masculinity. Yet he merely alludes to the well-springs of Anzac. Passing references to the RSL and past conflicts go nowhere in particular,
One North American reviewer wondered if the film represented a trend towards apolitical explorations of the Iraq conflict: war on terror as an incidental plot device.
In fact, Newton has accurately captured the Australian's apathetic mood towards the current Middle East campaigns. Australia's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far has been less politically divisive than in the UK or US.
That said, he has also lost an opportunity to write an Australian classic by not tackling the Anzac myth head-on. Although he repeats the cliched 'anti-authoritarian larrikin as hero' motif, Newton appears essentially disinterested in this bigger national story. This movie is fiercely individualistic in its ethos.
At heart this film is a sermon rebuking the institutionalism of the armed forces, the way group-think corrupts the individual.
Yet Newton doesn't go deep enough, to explore the really tough questions. Yes, bullies are bad. Institutional abuse is evil.
But these sailors are heading to a war. At what point must individual desires acquiesce to a greater cause? Is some individual pain necessary to protect our friends and family in an imperfect world?
Anzac is sustained by the myth of mateship, in turn fed by deeper cultural reservoirs about self-sacrifice. And in the West, if you follow these pools to their deepest source, you will ultimately find yourself at the foot of Christ's cross.
In Three Blind Mice the idea of sacrificing yourself, even for your mates, has almost evaporated. This Sydney is dark and cynical. For the first full hour, every scene pulsates with menace. Everyone seems to teeter on the edge of madness. Its almost if the Apostle Paul's words, "No one is righteous, not even one" has been intentionally captured on celluloid.
There is barely a whiff of grace until the closing scenes.
Newton's self-imposed conceit, squashing all the action into one night, provides an entertaining pace but keeps character development to a minimum. The sailors must skate along the surface. The tight time-frame robs this tapestry of potential layers of meaning. Their clock is ticking too quickly to find the end of every thread.
Newton takes us too deep, too fast, into the pit of ordinary evils that spill onto Sydney's streets on one dark night. The result? The ray of redemption at daybreak appears a little trite and out of character.