Her new feature Blessed continues this trajectory, extending the themes explored in the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre play, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class (1997), with the same writers who produced the play (including Andrew Bovell and then newbie Christos Tsolkias), fine-tuning the screenplay, which has become more an ensemble piece about children and mothers, submission and subjugation, how we judge and are judged.
Like the dynamic Head On, Blessed takes place over 24 hours but employs an unusual structure to examine the lives of children and mothers about to topple over the edge. Split into two parts, the first focuses on the perspectives of the children, the difficult terrain they are forced to negotiate; the second half returns to the start of the day, flipping the coin to fill in the gaps, exploring the mothers’ lives and how they’re implicated in the children’s often dangerous behaviour. The repetition of images, like a visual refrain, brings a poignant reminder of what they all share: we are introduced to each character as they sleep, in peace, with the dawn light on their faces; we farewell them as they look towards the sun in that magic hour of dusk where the light is just beginning to fade.
Christos Tsolkias, in his award-winning novel The Slap (and, earlier, Loaded), proved a talent for capturing contemporary Australian culture in all its goddamned complexity, particularly the heart and soul of Greek immigrants. Here all the characters are strong but the standouts are best friends Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras). Lowe proves she is more than just ‘Beautiful Kate’ (see review) with wonderful comic timing and that right mix of vulnerability and sophistication girls her age possess. Newcomer Baboussouras is both tough and brittle. The dialogue between the two hits the mark, capturing the seeming banality of the girl’s smart-arse banter while exploring darker issues underneath: “You don’t cut yourself because you’re fat...I’ve seen heaps of fat Goths.”
There’s also the tragedy of young kids who don’t see the full picture, forced to deal with unexpected consequences, often too much to bear. In one of the film’s best scenes, Daniel (Harrison Gilberson) breaks into an old terrace looking to steal some money (as his parents Tanya (Deborra-Lee Furness) and Peter (William McInnes) have falsely accused him of pinching from their room) and accidentally injures an elderly woman. As he looks at the bookshelves, filled with the writings of Marx and Steinbeck, Daniel comes across Laurel (Monica Maughan) who, rather than being confronted or intimidated, tries to befriend him. When he demands money she says, “Take what you need...you’re lovely...There must be something I can give you” and he becomes indignant; this isn’t the script he has in his head. As she gains his confidence he tells her about his mother and, sensitive to the boy’s plight, she replies: “It’s hard for mums when sons reach a certain age. You’re not sure how to love them anymore.” But as she asks him in desperation to repeat “I love you mum”, we realise that she is not just benign but also using him, seeing him as a replacement for her own absent, adopted son. Her tenuous relationship with James (Wayne Blair) is explored later when she is haunted by the ghost of a memory: his Aboriginal mother appearing at the door with gifts that she hides.
The dynamic between younger kids is perfectly explored. Orton (Reef Ireland) and Stacey (Eva Lazzara) are sleeping in a charity clothing bin to escape their edgy mum Rhonda (Frances O’Connor), whose “whole life is just one big assessment” and is pregnant to the latest abuser after a string of boyfriends have assaulted Stacey. Playing in the sand with blood on her dress (she has just got her period but doesn’t know what to do), Stacey is under-resourced and ‘not all there’ with a blunt naivete that makes Orton protective. When she sees prostitutes get into a client’s car she asks, “What do they do?” On hearing Orton’s response she says, “It’s like Nathan. But he doesn’t give me any money.” O’Connor is all sinewy gristle and seething resentment in her gutsy portrayal of a mother having to deal with the unendurable, and the film’s final scene is a ripper. Pregnant and adrift, Rhonda dances alone at the local club in complete desolation, reminding me of Claire Denis’ final bar scene in her majestic Beau travail (1999): characters obliterating the pain with bodies in movement. But it only lasts for so long; they know the pain returns with daylight.
With the current trend in Australian cinema (and probably the same goes in our cinematic history) being for films about crises in masculinity (Three Blind Mice, The Square, West, Ten Empty, Cedar Boys, The Last Ride) it’s wonderful to see a film based around an ensemble of women and their roles in families and community—with an emphasis on motherhood. Often under-utilised performers like Miranda Otto and Frances O’Connor (who’ve had success recently on US television together in Cashmere Mafia) and Deborra-Lee Furness seize these meaty roles with relish. As with the intricate entanglements of Lantana (that Bovell wrote), all the characters and relationships in Blessed are enigmatic and interesting enough to carry off an entire feature on their own. It’s a good sign when you leave the cinema wishing you could follow them further.
Blessed is screening nationally after being selected for the Toronto International Film Festival in the Contemporary World Cinema program and the official competition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival. The writers recently won an AWGIE for Best Adapted Feature Film.
Blessed, director Ana Kokkinos, producer Al Clark, writers Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius, Christos Tsolkias, editor Jill Bilcock, production designer Simon McCutcheon, DOP Geoff Burton, composer Cezary Skubiszewski
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 27
© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com