With 1982’s Barbarosa, Fred Schepisi became the first of the Australian New Wave directors to make the pilgrimage overseas, kickstarting a trend of Australian directors selling their wares abroad. George Miller followed with his contribution to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, Gillian Armstrong with 1984’s Mrs Soffel, Peter Weir with 1985’s Witness, and so on. The trend continues to this day (seen most recently with David Michod’s Netflix film War Machine and the Spierig Brothers’ Jigsaw), with directors pursuing bigger budgets and diverse opportunities outside the confines of the Australian film industry. This article is the first in an ongoing series that will highlight some of the lesser-known or neglected ventures of Australian filmmakers working overseas. And given my established fascination with Bruce Beresford’s work—as discussed here and here and here—I’ll kick off by looking at three of his lesser known overseas productions: King David (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), and Last Dance (1996).
Starring: Richard Gere, Edward Woodward, Alice Krige, Jean-Marc Barr
First viewing, via VHS
One of Bruce Beresford’s strengths as a director, particularly in his adaptation of books and plays to screen, is his unobtrusiveness. Beresford’s own style doesn’t get in the way of the material; rather, he translates the material with as much clarity as possible and finds ways to amplify what’s on the page, a quality evident in films like Breaker Morant or Driving Miss Daisy or his David Williamson adaptations. However, that doesn’t quite work in favour of King David.
King David chronicles the life of David from his youth to his deathbed, recounting the King’s triumphs and struggles. David is played by Richard Gere—then at the height of his matinee idolatry following American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentlemen—who was unfairly maligned for his performance. Gere is an underrated actor and he’s fine here, though I’ll concede his strengths lie with contemporary subject matter and material that exploits the friction between his copious charisma and moral shades of grey.
The Biblical story of David is compelling on the page regardless of one’s faith, but doesn’t quite conform to an innately cinematic shape. Consequently, Beresford’s unobtrusiveness makes for a very straight, somewhat flavourless retelling of the tale, with none of the romance or bombast or theatricality or corn of the great 1950s Biblical epics, nor the grit or curious (and often misguided) postmodernist choices of recent films like Noah or Exodus: Gods and Kings. With production design from James Bond and Stanley Kubrick go-to Ken Adam and photography by Don McAlpine—a regular Beresford collaborator who also shot the likes of Predator, Moulin Rouge! and The Dressmaker—the film is visually excellent. It just resides at the blander end of the Biblical adaptation spectrum.
Starring: Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard
First viewing, via DVD
Following King David’s critical and commercial disappointment, two new Beresford films debuted in 1986: the Australian film The Fringe Dwellers, reviewed here, and Crimes of the Heart. While both films depict women’s struggles in small-town communities, in terms of tone and cultural milieus the films are chalk and cheese. Crimes of the Heart centres on three disparate sisters reunited following a shocking incident: Lenny (Diane Keaton) is their grandfather’s primary care, mousy and endangered with spinsterhood; Meg (Jessica Lange) is a rising star back from the big smoke; and Babe (Sissy Spacek) just shot her abusive husband. Or as the film’s poster nicely recaps: Meg just left one, Lenny never had one, Babe just shot one. With the sisters reunited, dirty laundry is aired and interpersonal conflict ensues, not unlike Radiance (reviewed here), another film dealing with disparate sisters reunited but, once again, presenting a very different cultural milieu.
Crimes of the Heart is an adaptation of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer-winning play, a relationship drama with a streak of dark comedy. With adaptations of Don’s Party, Breaker Morant, and The Club (reviewed here) on his CV and with Driving Miss Daisy in the wings, Beresford is an old hand when it comes to adapting stage plays to film, and on this project he had a trio of powerhouse actresses at his disposal, all Oscar winners within the last decade (Keaton for Annie Hall, Spacek for The Coal Miner’s Daughter, Lange for Tootsie). But some of the performers found the experience frustrating: in an interview with Joe Queenan, Lange reported that “I had difficulties with Beresford… He didn’t give us any direction” (If you’re talking to me, your career must be in trouble, p. 229). Based on interviews I’ve seen with the director, I’m tempted to think that Lange was mistaking Australian nonchalance for lack of direction.
Having said that, when watching Crimes of the Heart, it frequently feels like the material and performances haven’t quite been modulated from stage to screen: Keaton in particular performs much of the film at a broad, melodramatic pitch that is, at times, a bit much. Consequently, your enjoyment of the film will hinge on your tolerance for watching angsty and affluent Southern belles running around a large house yelling at each other. Personally, I’m fine with that and was very entertained, but mileages will vary.
Starring: Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow, Peter Gallagher, Jack Thompson, Randy Quaid
First viewing, via DVD
Actress Elizabeth Banks recently took director Steven Spielberg to task for directing very few films with female leads, in the process providing a broader indictment of the film industry. While Spielberg’s filmography is lacking in this department, Beresford’s isn’t too shabby; he’s directed a number of films with female leads or co-loads, including the abovementioned Crimes of the Heart, The Getting of Wisdom, Puberty Blues, The Fringe Dwellers, Driving Miss Daisy, Paradise Road, Double Jeapordy, and 1996’s Last Dance. That’s not the only common thread linking the largely forgotten Last Dance to other corners of Beresford’s filmography: it’s his third film starring Jack Thompson (following Breaker Morant and The Club), the first of three consecutive films featuring women in prison (preceding Paradise Road and Double Jeapordy), his second film featuring characters sentenced to execution (following Breaker Morant), and the first of two films featuring Dance in the title (followed by Mao’s Last Dancer).
Cindy (Sharon Stone) is on death row for double homicide and her execution date is fast approaching. Rick (Rob Morrow), a new recruit at the Governor’s office, takes on her clemency case. Beresford’s film peels back the onion on Cindy’s case, with Rick uncovering new facts and evidence which throw the circumstances of her arrest and incarceration into doubt, as Cindy grapples with her looming execution.
The 1990s saw a whole spate of American films about death row—see Dead Man Walking, Just Cause, The Chamber, True Crime, The Green Mile—clearly capitalising on topical debates about the ethics of the death sentence. If Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile occupy the upper tier of this list, Last Dance is firmly on the middle tier: it’s a solid, efficient, but fairly generic drama. Morrow’s a somewhat vanilla leading man, but the rest of the cast do sturdy work. Stone, transitioning from the erotic thrillers that made her a household name, is de-glamourised and sells Cindy’s humanity, her tough exterior concealing a vulnerable interior. The actress was undeservedly nominated for a Razzie for her performance, as was Richard Gere for King David, both proof positive that the Razzies are an innately misguided institution. A pre-bonkers Randy Quaid acquits himself well as Rick’s manager, while Jack Thompson continues his streak in the mid-1990s playing American men of influence as the film’s Governor.
Next month: Down Under Flix looks at Blackfellas, Manganinnie, and films by Jocelyn Moorhouse and Nadia Tass.