Director: Paul Cox
Stars: Norman Kaye, Wendy Hughes, Jon Finlayson, Julia Blake, Jonathan Hardy
First viewing, via DVD
This review serves as a somewhat belated tribute to the late John Clarke, who passed away back in April (make that very belated…). As one of Australia’s sharpest, savviest satirists, Clarke’s reach and legacy were impressive, as noted in many of the more punctual tributes following his death (this one is particularly good). While not his most famous commodities, Clarke was no slouch on the film front, contributing memorable supporting turns in films like Death in Brunswick and Crackerjack and co-writing two features with another late luminary, director Paul Cox, 1982’s Lonely Hearts and 1996’s Lust and Revenge.
In Lonely Hearts, Norman Kaye plays Peter, an ageing, balding piano tuner seeking companionship. Using a Lonely Hearts dating agency, he is connected to Patricia (Wendy Hughes), a reserved, sheltered younger woman. They take things slowly, easing into an affectionate friendship, but Peter feels the tug of ardour stronger than the sexually inexperienced and reluctant Patricia, leading to a crossing of lines and a crossroads in their relationship.
Lonely Hearts merges the melancholy and sensitivity of a European art film (a Cox trademark) with refreshing moments of antipodean dagginess (a Clarke trademark befitting the former Fred Dagg himself). Pearls of comedy are mined from the outset, as exemplified in the opening scene at Peter’s mother’s funeral. Clarke was recruited by executive producer Phillip Adams to inject some levity into Cox’s typically morose script, making Lonely Hearts more accessible and mainstream than the filmmaker’s usual work (see, for example, the Cox films previously reviewed on Down Under Flix, Human Touch and The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky). By all accounts the collaboration between Clarke and Cox was friendly and complementary, though relations between Cox and producer John Murray were less so, reinforcing the director’s staunchly independent working methods for subsequent films.
Patricia’s sexual reserve and Peter’s chivalry (to a point) are atypical of the permissive Australia seen in the films that helped kindle the Australian film renaissance over the previous decade, such as Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (in which Clarke appeared). By modern sensibilities and movie standards, I suspect they’d be downright alien and antiquated to many younger viewers. Plenty of films are rendered passé by their tangible trappings over time—the fashion, the hair, the music—and to a degree Lonely Hearts is too: in an age of dating apps and readily available pornography, Peter using a newfangled dating service or watching smut in a movie theatre serve as cinematic time-stamps. Yet Lonely Hearts also presents a paradigm of dating and relationships that is similarly perceived as old-fashioned and rarely seen onscreen nowadays.
But Lonely Hearts is refreshing and vital partly because it is so anomalous, and partly because its classical storytelling taps into universal pangs and yearnings. It presents characters out of time finding solace in each other and facing the tension innate to all relationships—that between individual wants and each other’s needs—and is beautifully played (or underplayed) by Kaye and Hughes, both Cox regulars.
The film was a modest popular and major critical success, winning that year’s AFI Award for Best Film and netting nominations for Director, Actor and Actress (both stars would win the following year, Kaye for Cox’s Man of Flowers and Hughes for Careful, He Might Hear You), and Script. I’d rate Lonely Hearts and last week’s Mister Johnson as the best films covered on Down Under Flix this year, and if they’re topped before the close of 2017 that would make for a very special year.
Next time: A double bill from director Kriv Stenders: The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005) and Lucky Country (2009).