Director: Carl Schultz
Stars: Wendy Hughes, Robyn Nevin, Nicholas Gledhill, John Hargreaves, Peter Whitford
Last week one of the weaker Australian films of 1983, Phillipe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, was spotlighted here on Down Under Flix. This week’s spotlight falls on one of the best local releases of 1983, Carl Schultz’s Careful, He Might Hear You, based on a novel by Sumner Locke Elliott. The film’s critical status is evidenced by its sweeping of that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards, where it won 8 gongs out of 13 nominations, including awards for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress for Wendy Hughes (one year after her nominated work in the superb Lonely Hearts), and Supporting Actor for John Hargreaves (two years after his nominated work in Hoodwink), against impressive competition from The Year of Living Dangerously, Man of Flowers, and Phar Lap. But I’m not sure Schultz’s film has persisted in the public consciousness as strongly as those others have, bolstered as they are by the auteur credentials of Peter Weir and Paul Cox, the star power of Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, and the national iconography of the thoroughbred hero of the nation.
Set in Sydney during the Depression era, Careful, He Might Hear You centres around PS (Nicholas Gledhill), the young nephew of Lila (Robyn Nevin) and Vanessa (Wendy Hughes). Following his mother’s death in childbirth, PS lives in the working-class home of Lila and her husband George (Peter Whitford). When upper crust Vanessa returns to Australia from abroad, she takes on joint custody of PS, welcoming him into her opulent mansion. However, she has larger (and self-serving) aspirations for PS, and pursues full custody of the child while grooming him into a subservient little gentleman.
Much of Careful, He Might Hear You’s drama unfolds against an adult world of secrets and machinations built on a history of tensions and rejections, all glimpsed from a child’s vantage point and gradually revealed to PS over the course of the film. The image above, from the point of view of PS spying on his aunts conversing, captures this flavour nicely. Adult interactions are viewed from a distance, behind walls and veils of secrecy both literal and metaphorical, and at this early juncture Hughes’ Vanessa is a source of ambivalent fascination for the child, embodying the danger of change and the exoticism of difference, glamorous but also suspicious. While I get detractors of the “One Perfect Shot” school of film curation, this is about as sophisticated an intersection of gorgeous imagery, thematic texture, and characterization in a single frame as you can wrangle. As audience members we straddle both the adult and child worlds, and cinematographer John Seale (an Oscar winner for The English Patient and recently nominated for his vigorous work on Mad Max: Fury Road) plays with perspectives and scale throughout, shooting at both adult and child eyelines and at high and low angles and frequently emphasizing PS’s diminutive stature against the seemingly gargantuan surrounds of Vanessa’s ornate home and estate.
Wendy Hughes is one of the MVPs of Down Under Flix in 2017 between her work in this, Lonely Hearts, and Hoodwink. Her performance here is excellent, evocative of Faye Dunaway’s work in Chinatown and, as the film progresses, the much-maligned Mommie Dearest, with Vanessa’s stylish, self-possessed exterior gradually peeled back to reveal a neurotic, broken interior. The turning point is an extended three-hander sequence at film’s centre featuring Hughes, her Hoodwink co-star John Hargreaves, and Gledhill. Hargreaves’ role, as PS’s alcoholic father Logan and the object of Vanessa’s unrequited desire, is ultimately an extended cameo but he makes a palpable dent in the film, alternately sympathetic and cruel. Both Vanessa and Logan are damaged goods, and while the film – perhaps symptomatic of its cultural context – arguably leans more towards Logan in its sympathies, the passage of time and increasing awareness of toxic masculinity render Vanessa’s supposed villainess a truly tragic figure.
Following these mid-film fireworks, the second half of the film adopts a more overwrought tone, accentuated by an elegantly bludgeoning score by Ray Cook. Mileages may vary towards this more melodramatic pitch, but top to toe Careful, He Might Hear You is impeccably crafted filmmaking. Stage stalwart Nevin (The Coolangatta Gold, Resistance) is less showy than Hughes but gives an equally accomplished performance, and a young Gledhill does nice, unaffected work in the pivotal role of PS. Director Schultz previously helmed the well-liked Blue Fin (something of a companion piece to its fellow Greg Rowe-starring, Colin Thiele-adapting Storm Boy) and worked on the acclaimed Kennedy/Miller miniseries Bodyline and The Dismissal, and he’d later do good work adapting David Williamson’s Travelling North to film and across 21 episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. But Careful, He Might Hear You is his standout and on any CV it’s a crown jewel.
Next time: A Bruce Beresford double bill of The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009).