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Pivotal moments

13 February 2015

Stephen Brown sees a portmanteau film


THE TURNING (Cert. 15) consists of nine out of the 17 short stories that constitute the distinguished Australian novelist Tim Winton's book of the same name. The characters and the directors are different for each episode. Memory plays a key part in most pieces; remembering that which has been dis-membered in our lives.

The film's various turnings owe something to a word frequently used in the New Testament: crisis (κρίσις) - pivotal moments, often implying judgement leading to some amendment of life. The film begins and ends with lines from T. S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday: "Let these words answer For what is done, not to be done again."

There is no turning back our histories, but people in these cameos illuminate ways of redeeming misspent moments past, of moving forward.

In "Reunion", Gail, Cate Blanchett as a housewife (not as in the book), dreads her mother-in-law Carol's Christmas visit. The introduction of this anxiety transforms the film into a tale of conversion and reconciliation. The two of them fall hilariously into what turns out to be a stranger's swimming pool. They rise as if from waters of baptism to develop a new relationship with one another, generously celebrated with champagne.

Alcohol and/or water figure in several episodes, including "The Turning". We learn that drink drove an affluent couple to be born-again Christians. When a hard-up pal decides to do the same, she is battered by her husband. In a visionary sequence, she tries walking across waves towards the rescuing arms of Jesus, free at last.

In "Commission", Bob (Hugo Weaving), a recovering alcoholic of 15 years, lives alone in the outback. His son's visit provides the opportunity to explain how through work he lost his way. Turning sober and becoming a trustworthy neighbour has brought Bob some restoration. "Had this feeling the world was inviting me in." Even so, the film version concludes more tentatively than the book.

"Aquifer" (subterranean material, such as sand, which secretes water) metaphorically describes the plight of a seemingly well-adjusted man. Beneath the surface, he is flooded with regrets over walking away from the school bully who was drowning. If only he had turned back.

The biblical ambiguities of fraternal love (Jacob and Esau, the Prodigal and Elder Brother) are there in "Sand", bringing new insights to the siblings. This wordless piece portrays one brother as almost suffocating the other in the dunes. It is a moment of revelation. The offending brother will never be seen in the same way again.

The Australian landscape shapes many of the characters. It is A. E. Housman's land of lost content that they will never walk again. In "Cockleshell", a 15-year-old boy misreads a situation, making a move on a girl only to be rebuffed. An all-consuming fire destroys the girl's home and with it, one senses, any future hope of joy.

It is also hard to see in "Long, Clear View" anything changing the mind of a somewhat obsessive-compulsive boy. He perceives God as a celestial newscaster with whom humanity must passively acquiesce: a world of no choices, no change of direction.

Fortunately, "Boner McPharlin's Moll", which follows, offers hope. Various contemporaries recall the young tearaway Boner. It may have been a short life but, oh boy! he'd certainly lived. Peers implicitly regret not having followed their own bliss in the way Boner had.

There is still a lot of living to do in "Big World". A school-leaver, Davo, and Biggie, his rather backward friend, set out in an old camper van, have adventures, and experience misfortunes; and yet the world is so big that they are lost in wonder, love, and praise of it.

I have spent much time pondering the links between the stories in this portmanteau film. It took some doing, which makes me wonder who the distributors think will want to. When the film was originally transmitted on television, there were 18 episodes. With further discrete stories, spaced over time, they may cumulatively have brought audiences more obvious spiritual rewards than, alas, this present format seems likely to.

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