Radiance (1998)

R poster

Director: Rachel Perkins

Stars: Deborah Mailman, Rachel Maza, Trisha Morton-Thomas

First viewing, via SBS On Demand

According to research conducted by Screen Australia, women comprise on average 16% of working film directors in Australia, with 32% of producers and 23% of writers also women. It’s a disappointing statistic, and sadly consistent with overseas trends. It’s all the more frustrating given the impressive pool of female directing talent that Australia has produced, including, but by no means limited to, Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda), Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, The Dressmaker), Sue Brooks (Japanese Story), Cate Shortland (Somersault), Shirley Barrett (Love Serenade), Ana Kokkinos (Head On, The Book of Revelation), Samantha Lang (The Monkey’s Mask), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), the late Sarah Watt (Look Both Ways), and Rachel Perkins, director of Bran NueDae and Radiance.

Radiance centres on three Indigenous sisters of different ages, fathers and temperaments reunited for their mother’s funeral. The sisters are an outwardly disparate trio: Mae (Trisha Morton-Thomas) looked after their mother during her final years, and is coarsened by the experience; Cressy (Rachel Maza) in an international opera star who seemingly abandoned her family to pursue her career; and newly pregnant youngest sister Nona (Deborah Mailman) is the most perky and naive of the three. Over the course of the film they rub each other the wrong way, air dirty laundry, and forge new connections. It is, after all, based on a play.

The script is adapted by Louis Nowra from his own stage play, two years after adapting another of his plays, Cosi, for the screen (Quick aside: among his other screen credits, Nowra has a story credit on the Hollywood submarine film K19: The Widowmaker, which is noteworthy as being, for over a decade, the most expensive film steered by a female director, Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow). Like many film adaptations of plays, there’s an inherent theatricality and stagy quality to proceedings, given the (largely) single location, dialogue heavy scenes, and recognizable ebb and flow of stage drama. But this is an observation, not a criticism: I’m a fan of that particular aesthetic, and Radiance rests upon a solid theatrical foundation while also finding ways to be lively onscreen.

A key source of that liveliness comes from the assembled cast. Look back over that list of women directors above and you’ll see a common thread: a number of those filmmakers and their films helped catapult the country’s best actresses into the spotlight: My Brilliant Career helped launch Judy Davis, Oscar and Lucinda helped launch Cate Blanchett, Somersault helped launch Abbie Cornish, The Babadook helped consolidate Essie Davis, and so on. Similarly, Radiance announced the arrival of Deborah Mailman, who was awarded an AFI Award for Best Actress for her work as Nona. She’s immensely likable in the film, alternating between childlike innocence, bawdy vulgarity, and raw vulnerability.  Trisha Morton-Thomas and Rachel Maza also do strong work in less showy roles as older sisters carrying deep familial scars.

Perkins is the daughter of noted Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and her familiarity with the struggles and histories of Indigenous Australians no doubt informed her treatment of these themes. Radiance bypasses the usual tropes and stereotypes we tend to associate with Indigenous characters on film, and its depiction of bickering sisters and family feuding feels at times universal, not unlike that other 1990s Australian film based on a play about feuding sisters reunited for a parent’s funeral, Hotel Sorrento. And yet their Indigeneity is an integral part of the tapestry of both film and characterization: the characters’ behaviour and actions in the present are deeply informed by their heritage, and by the culturally institutionalized disadvantages and prejudices their family encountered in the past. Suffice to say, the struggles and experiences of the sisters of Sorrento and Radiance, while universal in some respects, are also chalk and cheese and heavily predicated on race.

In summary: Innately theatrical but consistently compelling, Radiance is a terrific film and testament to the great work being done by too few women directors in this country.

Next week: There can be only one Russell Mulcahy film next week, and it’s sports biopic Swimming Upstream (2003).

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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