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Wish You Were Here - movie review

A group of Australians go on holiday in south-east Asia and something bad happens. No, it’s not the latest commercial for smartraveller.gov.au. In fact, we don’t even know what happened at first; all we do know is that four friends – Dave (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Alice (Felicity Price), her sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) and Steph’s new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr) – went on a holiday in Cambodia and everything seemed great until they came home without Jeremy.

As the remaining trio try to pick up their lives back in Sydney, it’s clear that whatever happened on the holiday isn’t something they can just shrug off. Some of the tensions between members of the group are easily explained; Jeremy vanished after a night spent drugged up and dancing, and while letting the authorities know what state they were in might help with the investigation, it also might get them in a lot of trouble. Other tensions aren’t quite so easy to pin down. Why is Steph falling apart and what does Dave have to do with it? Why is Dave suddenly jumping at shadows and talking about moving his family? Why is Alice still pushing at things everyone else would clearly rather just leave alone?

There are things Australian films do well — everything but the script — and then there are things Australian films don’t do all that well: the script. Wish You Were Here avoids that problem – for a while, at least – by being a mysterious film about people dealing with a mystery. Things are kept deliberately vague for long time here, forcing us to pay close attention to the cast as they drop tiny clues as to what they know and what they don’t. Fortunately the cast are excellent and more than up to the task of keeping us engaged in a film which initially consists largely of “I don’t want to talk about it” looks.

Australian films rarely have difficultly looking good, and this one makes both Sydney and Cambodia look gorgeous and yet slightly menacing. They’re both locations with a lush ripeness that seems to be able to evoke dread with little more than a shifting of the light, adding greatly to the foreboding and anxiety that this film does so well. That said, even by movie standards Dave and  Alice’s massive waterfront mansion seems pretty unlikely for a struggling boat-builder and his remedial English-teacher wife. It’s a little difficult to be drawn into their family strife when every time they walk outside all you can think of is “that view must cost an absolute fortune”.

Spoilers await any attempt to go into any real detail about the story – apart from “It’s like an unfunny version of The Hangover 2” (which is kind of accurate). That’s a problem because while the end of this film isn’t exactly a letdown, it does leave you feeling like the first two-thirds have been writing checks the ending can’t quite cash. It’d be nice to be able to say that the resolution of the mystery doesn’t really matter, as the film is actually about the effects of what's happened rather than the details. But...really? If you make a film about a mystery and spend the first three quarters of your film deepening that mystery and making it a cancer eating away at the lives of your characters, you really do need to make the resolution of that mystery something special.

Instead, what we get simply answers various plot questions without adding to the film’s aura of moral decay. These pampered Aussies went overseas and somehow brought back an evil that’s eating away at their supposedly perfect lives; the ending we get might explain what happened on a literal level, but it doesn’t resonate the way it should to fit in with what went on before. And for a film that flirts so firmly with clichés about the dangers of Asian holidays for Westerners, this kind of ending – competent and box-ticking thought it may be – can’t help but fall just a little bit flat.

Three and a half stars

Anthony Morris

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