Director: Ivan Sen
Actors: Danielle Hall, Damian Pitt
First viewing, via DVD
Ivan Sen’s latest film Goldstone premiered at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this month and is due for wider release in July, making this a good time to check out his debut feature, 2002’s Beneath Clouds. Sen won Best Director at that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards, in what proved a significant year for Indigenous-themed films: on top of Sen’s Best Director win, Best Film went to Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and Best Actor went to David Gulpilil for The Tracker, and all three films were nominated and/or won in multiple categories.
Beneath Clouds follows two young Indigenous teenagers hitch-hiking to Sydney through rural New South Wales. Lena (Danielle Hall) is the daughter of an absent Irish father and a negligent mother. Vaughan (Damian Pitt) is a juvenile delinquent working on a prison farm who finds out his mother is ill. Both characters resolve to escape their prisons – literal in Vaughan’s case and small time life in Lena’s – and set off to Sydney, Lena to see her father and Vaughan to visit his ailing mother. They meet on the road and end up travelling side by side. Initially cynical of each other and verbally combative, they form a strong bond as their journey progresses.
Beneath Clouds is a study of contrasts and opposites. Nowhere is this more evident than the contrast between the often beautiful scenery and landscapes of the Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi regions where the film was shot and the often severe, disadvantaged lives endured by those who inhabit these regions. Throughout the film Sen depicts the institutionalised racism facing Indigenous Australians from both the authorities and members of the general populace. He also shows the limited opportunities afforded young Indigenous Australians, and the resulting friction in that community between young and old, and men and women.
As befitting a road movie (albeit a road movie on foot), there is a sense of constant motion: even when there is stillness and silence, there is the underlying compulsion to move forward. This manifests in the spartan dialogue between the two protagonists, shorn of superfluous niceties: Lena and Vaughan speak to each other in jabs and digs, none of them wasted, all conveying essential character-building information. This economical storytelling extends beyond the dialogue: the silences between them speak volumes, and while there’s little eye contact between these characters as they journey side by side, their glances and moments of eye contact are meaningful. There is an element of silent film acting and silent film grammar to this economy, and while it isn’t always particularly naturalistic, it somehow feels authentic.
Much of this accomplishment rests on the shoulders of Hall and Pitt, who deliver strong performances. Alternately taciturn and abrasive, hardened and coarse, and wounded and sympathetic, Lena and Vaughan are roles that could have appealed to histrionic acting instincts, but there’s an understated, naturalistic flatness to the performances and delivery, which gives those key emotional beats even more charge when they arise. Both are pained, often cynical characters: Lena is resigned, weary, but yearning for a better life, while Vaughan’s yearning has eroded and his resignation turned to anger. The actors convey this nicely – Hall suitably laconic, Pitt knotted and simmering – and their eventual reconciling of perspectives and mutual understanding is a beautiful thing. Alas, this would be both performers’ first and last roles, and Pitt sadly died in a car accident in 2009. The film is thus lightning in a bottle, enshrining the work of two novices with tremendous raw potential.
Summary: An important, melancholic but ultimately optimistic and hopeful film, elevated by economical, silent film-esque storytelling and two very fine performances. Highly recommended.
Next week: The late Paul Cox’s Human Touch (2004)