The Eye of the Storm - movie review
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Adapted by Judy Morris from White’s novel of the same name, The Eye of the Storm is set in 1970s Sydney. As the film opens, seriously wealthy matriarch Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) is in failing health and her two adult children, Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush) and ‘Princess de Lascabanes’ (aka Dorothy – Judy Davis), have reluctantly returned from their respective expatriate locations to be at her side. Long suppressed but still raw family tensions are reinflamed and complicated by the around-the-clock presence of Elizabeth’s nurses Flora (Alexandra Schepisi) and Mary (Maria Theodorakis) and housekeeper Lotte (Helen Morse).
In both structure and content, The Eye of the Storm is classic Schepisi material. Renowned as a director adept with complex narrative structures (Six Degrees of Separation, Last Orders), Schepisi tackles the challenging White material with relish.
Opening with a retrospective image of a radiant Rampling and punctuated regularly by flashbacks, the conflicted family at the centre of White’s story is also a consistent theme in Schepisi’s career (Barbarosa, Six Degrees of Separation, It Runs in the Family).
Morris translates White’s famously droll and penetrating prose perfectly to the screen. Schepisi in turn directs with supreme assurance, turning out an elegant, enjoyably florid last word in dysfunctional family dynamics. The Eye of the Storm lays bare not only the toxic Hunter family tensions but also shines an unforgiving light on the decidedly parochial cultural landscape that was Sydney in the 1970s.
As with many a Schepisi film - think Last Orders with Helen Mirren, Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone - the director has assembled a stellar ensemble cast and extracted performances to match. Rampling makes a fabulously entertaining, Machiavellian matriarch, wallowing in her alleged illness while mischievously playing her two children off against each other. Rush gives his usual polished performance as the successful now fading thespian Sir Basil. Returning to Australian shores after a career played out overseas, Basil is ludicrously self-important but Rush somehow ensures his character remains likeable.
As the straight talking, all Aussie sheila Flora, Schepisi’s oldest daughter Alexandra is a revelation. An interestingly unconventional looking woman with an undeniable screen presence, her character is central to the action and provides some of the most of the genuinely poignant moments in the film. Morse, almost unrecognisable as traumatized WW2 survivor Lotte, plays part housekeeper, confidant and sometime cabaret performer with an almost painful intensity.
But it is Davis who arguably gives the defining performance of the film. A smart bit of physical casting makes her a disconcertingly convincing daughter to Rampling’s Elizabeth. At her very best when incarnating women with a brittle, fiercely intelligent quality (Judy Garland, Lillian Hellmann), Davis is simply thrilling as the prodigal ‘Princess’. As the divorced wife of minor French royalty unreconciled to her current genteel poverty, Davis exudes a relentless air of quiet desperation. Still bitterly resentful of her dysfunctional upbringing, Dorothy’s painfully maladjusted state is made clear in a fabulously awkward welcome home party scene. And White’s novel and Morris’s screenplay gift many of the best lines to Davis’s character.
Undeniably a performance driven film, The Eye of the Storm is also distinguished by Janie Parker’s inspired art direction and Melinda Doring’s impeccable period production design. And with Schepisi’s long-term collaborator Ian Baker behind the camera, the film features typically fluid camera moves and a well-staged storm scene to reinforce the drama’s emotional intensity. Paul Grabowsky’s score is somewhat less successful with his original music coming across as anachronistic at times and at key moments, downright intrusive.
But this is a minor criticism in what is a frank, funny and immensely satisfying adaptation of White’s novel and a welcome return to the screen for one of Australia’s most accomplished directors.
- Four stars
By Rose Capp
The Eye of the Storm opens nationally on September 15
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