Director: John Duigan
Stars: Hugh Grant, Tara Fitzgerald, Sam Neill, Elle Macpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer, Ben Mendelsohn
First viewing, via SBS on Demand
Timing’s a funny thing. I’ve gotten into the habit of planning my line-ups for Down Under Flix a couple of months in advance, and John Duigan’s Sirens (1993) has been on the itinerary for a while now. Little did I anticipate that the same week I watched Sirens, star Kate Fischer would be thrust somewhat dramatically (and invasively) back into the media spotlight. Consequently, more people have probably read about, thought about, and googled Sirens in the last week than in the last decade.
Sirens is set in New South Wales in the 1930s. When artist Norman Lindsay’s work takes a turn towards the vulgar and profane, the Bishop of Sydney sends priest Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) along with his wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) to confront the artist. Campion and Estella visit Lindsay (Sam Neill) at his home in the small town of Springwood, where they observe and are taken aback by the frankness and lack of sexual inhibition of Lindsay and his three models: statuesque Sheela (Elle Macpherson), youthful Giddy (Portia de Rossi), and quasi-intellectual Pru (Kate Fischer).
The last film about an anti-establishment artist covered on Down Under Flix was the Paul Gauguin biopic Paradise Found, an entertaining film that bought into and romanticised the dickish behaviour of its protagonist a smidgeon too much. Director Duigan, best known for The Year My Voice Broke and Far East, avoids such misguided hagiography in Sirens. Instead, he focuses on mining the comic and thematic potential inherent in plonking the ill-equipped minister and his wife into an environment that, whilst relatively tame by today’s standards, appears positively Dionysian to the sheltered 30s couple. Duigan further milks the incongruity between this British duo and Lindsay & co via the surrounding environment, cramming in local wildlife (koalas, wombats, kangaroos, snakes, spiders, insects) to the point of caricature and making tremendous use of the Blue Mountains scenery.
Much of the film’s dialogue is discursive, articulating the different vantage points of Lindsay and Campion, as well as Estella and the models. These discussions revolve around censorship of art, religion versus art, sexual liberation, art as a vehicle for liberation, and the fine line between artistry, exploitation, and titillation. Such discourse is spirited, but ultimately simplistic by contemporary standards: as Adrian Martin notes in the terrific volume Australian Film 1978-1994, Duigan strove to “make a film true to Lindsay and the radical standards of the time, not those of our time” (p. 393). Moreover, in its recreations of Lindsay’s tableaus and gravitation to the nude figures of Macpherson, de Rossi and Fischer (with only moderate and discrete male nudity in comparison), the film unabashedly (and fittingly) indulges its subject’s voyeuristic tendencies.
However, a lightness of touch pervades the film and its treatment of transgression: Quills this ain’t. That lightness of touch extends even to the film’s strongest character arc, Estella’s sexual awakening. Estella experiences the most pronounced character shift in the film, as she is gradually seduced by the spirit of exhibitionism of Lindsay’s sirens, and Fitzgerald is quietly compelling in the role. As her husband, Hugh Grant plays a bumbling, befuddled minister much as you’d imagine Hugh Grant playing a bumbling, befuddled minister, but he essays his part like a pro, as does Neill as the cheeky, crotchety Lindsay.
The titular sirens, in essence symbols as much as supporting players, loom large over the story. I recall that much of the conversation surrounding the film’s release centered on supermodel Elle Macpherson’s presence. Prior to watching the flick this week, my only exposure to Macpherson as an actress was 1997’s Batman and Robin, where her performance as Bruce Wayne’s socialite girlfriend was infamously slashed to the bare minimum screen-time for theatrical release (in her defense, while she may be the weakest performer in that film, she commits fewer crimes against acting or humanity than co-star Uma Thurman as villain Poison Ivy). Her work in Sirens is solid: whilst her ease on camera varies from scene to scene, overall she’s a good fit for the role. Of the other sirens, Portia de Rossi is charming and engaging as Giddy, the baby of the trio, and Fischer, though given the least screen time, combines great natural screen presence with a model’s inherent poise, befitting the poser of the group. While Fischer as per recent reports consciously chose a life away from the limelight, and I completely get that, it’s a shame we didn’t see more of her in local films. Of course, that’s a common refrain when discussing Australian cinema, one I’ve already raised concerning a number of one-time actors and filmmakers (e.g. Danielle Hall, Damian Pitt, Rachael Lucas) and will raise many more times more over the course of the site’s life.
In summary: With a light-hearted rather than didactic touch, and liberal sentiments consistent with its period setting, Sirens is the cutest film on the market about sexual and artistic transgression.
Next week: Our second consecutive Norman Lindsay-themed film, Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969).