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novel to film: the art of distillation

oliver downes: fred schepisi, the eye of the storm

Charlotte Rampling, The Eye of the Storm Charlotte Rampling, The Eye of the Storm

During the author’s lifetime this paucity might have been attributed to the inexorable control that White exacted over his work and legacy—to the point of denying his own official biographer access to his private journals. However since his death, a new generation has been slow to grasp the opportunity presented by the novels. Indeed, it’s an experienced team who’ve risen to the challenge with The Eye of the Storm, the novel that tipped the scales to net the author his grudgingly accepted Nobel Prize in 1973.

Former socialite Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) lies dying in her lavish residence by Centennial Park in Sydney. Occasionally lucid, though as often floating on an ocean of memory, her needs are attended by two nurses, the sassy Flora (Alexandra Schepisi) and saintly Mary (Maria Theodorakis), a housekeeper, the irascible masochist and Holocaust survivor Lottie Lippmann (Helen Morse), as well as stalwart family lawyer Wyburd (John Gaden). Into this delicate arrangement arrive Elizabeth’s estranged adult children: Dorothy (Judy Davis), the Princess de Lascabanes, smarting from a failed marriage into European aristocracy that has stranded her in middle age with nought but a title and some jewels; and Basil (Geoffrey Rush), a rumpled actor, knighted by the British, who floats through life playing to other people’s expectations while haunted by his failure as Lear, the role by which he measures the limits of his talent. Temporarily united by a shared plan to pack their mother away to a nursing home and generally accelerate their inheritance of her fortune, the pair descend upon the deathbed to extract what they feel is owed.

The extent to which the film is seen as a successful adaptation depends entirely on the degree to which the story is viewed as inseparable from the prose in which it was written. The pleasures and frustrations of White’s writing—which for many may amount to the same thing—unravel organically, brilliant tendrils of digression curling away from painstakingly crafted scenes, present action illuminated by streams of consciousness, prose of unrelenting precision sinking its barbs into the reader’s mind: “the women, either in loud summery shifts, apparently with nothing underneath, or else imprisoned in a rigid armature of lace, shrieked at one another monotonously out of unhealed wounds.” Writing to Cynthia Nolan in early 1970, White commented that the novel was “going to be in the shape of a spider’s web,” and indeed to read it is to trace each thread through the concentric circles of narrative that slowly orbit Elizabeth’s impending death.

The dangers in adapting a narrative of this complexity are manifold. Judy Morris, whose lengthy resume as a film and television actor is complemented by writing credits on the Babe sequel Pig in the City (1998) and George Miller’s dancing penguin extravaganza Happy Feet (2006), has sharpened the primary relationships while shearing away the majority of Elizabeth’s mental forays into the past, trimming the frumpish Jessie Badgery from her entourage and generally rearranging and combining scenes to allow a seamless cinematic flow, one that is amply realised by director Fred Schepisi.

Having made his name at home directing films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Schepisi departed for the US where he solidified a reputation for producing films both critically respected and commercially robust. With Eye he is less analeptically trigger-happy than might have been expected, relying on loaded visual imagery to suggest the barely supressed corruption in which White revelled, the camera lingering on mould formed on a dish of preserves, two kilos of beef rotting in a garbage bin, and worms “lashing themselves into a frenzy of pink exposure” beneath rose bushes “at the climax of their beauty.” The film combines lush costumes and decor—gilt bed frames, colonnades and chandeliers. The house at Centennial Park is an exercise in opulence. Adding a smoothly vapid jazz soundtrack, Schepisi succeeds in capturing the crass indulgence of the period without aiming for the florid ruthlessness with which White represented his countrymen—although Colin Friels’ lascivious politician Athol Shreve comes close.

One of Schepisi’s most obvious achievements with this film is simply assembling a cast of such calibre. Judy Davis is superb as Dorothy, the perennially disappointed princess, murmuring the correct formalities through sour lips, roiling insecurities being permitted meagre outlet as she kicks her mother’s tasteful furnishings. Trained by Elizabeth in pursuit of wealth, Dorothy takes none of her mother’s unalloyed pleasure in the material; in one brilliant scene, she is surprised by Mary while rubbing her face on a sumptuous rug, Davis’ face collapsing from mortification into self-disgust on learning that the fur is platypus. Rush is equally good as the fumbling, narcissistic actor: “I think I might be ready for something real” he tells Flora with sublime self-delusion after their mutual seduction— though his presence tends to overwhelm the whole, a fact not helped by his unnecessary narration.

Charlotte Rampling is also excellent as the still-regal Elizabeth, her features displaying both the collapsed beauty and inner steel of the dying matriarch. Even from her death bed she is capable of slicing through the affectations of her love-starved children, out-performing the debonair Basil in their excruciating reunion or reducing Dorothy to sputtering incoherence with a sweet enquiry: “Are you going through a difficult time again?” However it is in its representation of Elizabeth that the film runs against the limits of the medium. In the novel, White accessed scenes from across a lifetime of casually unthinking egotism and the brutal pursuit of status, offering her character both as it was and is perceived in recollection all at once. Rampling, though brilliantly cast, can only gesture toward such psychological depth.

This is made manifest in the way both texts deal with Elizabeth’s moment of revelation, where, battered by the hurricane of the title on the fictionalised Brumby Island, she relinquishes her own unyielding hold on life and experiences a moment of sublime grace. In the novel, her rambling mind persists in returning to this moment, which both anchors the novel and her character, the insight into her own selfish refusal to open herself to love casting its illumination across the rest of her life. “She was no longer a body, least of all a woman,” White writes. “She was instead a being, or more likely a flaw at the centre of this jewel of light: the jewel itself, blinding and tremulous at the same time, existed, flaw and all, only by grace.” Limited as he is by the eye of the camera, Schepisi is merely able to capture the image of Rampling standing in the surf, dappled by the shadows of seabirds, her face upturned and exaltant. Although beautiful, the moment is perhaps unavoidably stripped of much of its psychological and indeed metaphysical resonance.

“The worst thing about love between human beings,” declares Elizabeth early in the novel, is “when you’re prepared to love them they don’t want it; when they do, it’s you who can’t bear the idea.” Over the course of nearly 600 pages of vividly imagined prose, White meticulously traces the destructive effects of attempting to impose one’s will on the heart. In contrast, Schepisi and Morris have managed to dramatise the essentially meaningless theatre to which relationships descend when denied loving sustenance.

The Eye of the Storm, director Fred Schepisi, novel Patrick White, screenplay Judy Morris, cinematographer Ian Baker, editor Kate Williams, production designer Melinda Doring, composer Paul Grabowsky, Paper Bark Films, distributor Transmission, 2011

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 21

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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