Director: Cherie Nowlan
Stars: Richard Roxburgh, Frances O’Connor, Cate Blanchett
The 1990s were a good time for Australian women filmmakers. On top of the continuing work, both here and abroad, from those who’d emerged or solidified their reputations in the 1980s (e.g. Gillian Armstrong, Nadia Tass, Jane Campion), the decade gifted audiences such films as Proof, Hammers over the Anvil, Floating Life, Love and Other Catastrophes, Love Serenade, Road to Nhill, The Well, Radiance, and Head On, all well-liked if not commercially lucrative ventures from debut or sophomore women feature directors.* Regrettably, some debut or sophomore efforts ended up being swansongs, such as Megan Simpson Huberman with Dating the Enemy, as lamented previously. Cherie Nowlan made her feature debut with Thank God He Met Lizzie in 1997, and while she’d subsequently make only one more feature (2007’s Clubland) she’s been steadily employed in television since, helming episodic television and telemovies both locally (e.g. The Secret Life of Us, Small Claims, Dance Academy, Packed to the Rafters, Underbelly, Rake) and abroad (Gossip Girl, 90210, Grey’s Anatomy, Suits, and the American spin on local crime classic Animal Kingdom).
Thank God He Met Lizzie is similar to Emma-Kate Croghan’s Love and Other Catastrophes (review here), released one year prior, sharing its low-fi aesthetic and a key cast member in Frances O’Connor. However, it also shares DNA with the likes of Annie Hall, as a male protagonist-centred look at the sugar rush and gradual flame-out of a relationship, and anticipates in O’Connor’s character the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype of the noughties. Richard Roxburgh plays Guy, an unlucky in love thirtysomething who meets and quickly becomes engaged to the stylish and affluent Lizzie (Cate Blanchett). In the thick of their wedding night celebrations, Guy is plagued by and grapples with memories, presented via flashback, of his past relationship with Jenny (Frances O’Connor). The film, which starts off a bit strained, finds its footing and rhythm when it begins alternating between these two time periods, telling the parallel stories of Guy and Jenny’s boom and bust romance and Guy’s escalating anxiety that he’s ill-matched with Lizzie.
Cate Blanchett’s career trajectory in the twenty years since Thank God He Met Lizzie has been astronomical by any yardstick, making it strange to go back and revisit a film where she’s simply “the love interest”. That’s not to say the actress is now above the occasional mere wife/girlfriend supporting role (see, for example, her short appearance in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups), but we tend to think of Blanchett in larger than life terms these days: as regal figures, be they of the historical (Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), fantastical (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit) or Hollywood (The Aviator) variety, or as tragic heroines (Blue Jasmine, Carol) or scenery-devouring villainesses (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Cinderella, Thor: Ragnarok). Unsurprisingly, Blanchett elevates what could have been a one-dimensional role with texture and nuance, and makes Lizzie sufficiently sympathetic to withstand any gravitation of the viewer’s affection towards the more outwardly charismatic Jenny. In that role, Frances O’Connor is the film’s MVP: as noted earlier, the part skirts with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that became pervasive to the point of parody in American films in the noughties, but Jenny’s a darker, more tragic iteration of that character type, in the same vein as Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly or The Apartment’s Fran Kubelik, and O’Connor plays her with grungy energy, spunk, and pathos. O’Connor competed against herself at 1997’s Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Actress for her performances in this and Kiss or Kill. She lost out on both counts to Pamela Rabe for The Well, though Blanchett scored a Supporting Actress gong for her work here.
I think of Richard Roxburgh as Australia’s Kevin Kline, a guy who can straddle theatre and film, comedy and drama, with relative ease. He’s also, like Kline and Blanchett and as befitting a stage actor, someone who can “go large”, sometimes to great effect (Moulin Rouge) and other times not (Van Helsing). Ultimately, he’s a surer bet playing everymen with either dissolute tendencies or dodgy ethics, and Guy fits this bill, initially presenting as a neurotic bland Danny but gradually revealing gradations of ambivalence and murky morality over the course of the film. The character’s arc is an innately frustrating one, and as the ostensible straight man the role’s not as outwardly rewarding or colourful as Blanchett’s or O’Connor’s, but Roxburgh anchors the film well. The support cast is peppered with recognisable faces who make impressions with limited screentime, including Jane Turner, Heather Mitchell, Roy Billing, Lucy Bell, and Felix Williamson among others.
I’ve spoken a lot about the performances, as they’re quite central to the film’s success, but Nowlan and crew do solid work behind the scenes. As indicated above, there’s something innately frustrating about Guy’s arc, and on paper the film’s hook – a guy (or literal Guy) becoming overwhelmed with memories and feelings for “the one that got away” on his wedding night – sounds potentially infuriating, and in the hands of a wrong-headed male writer and director could be downright catastrophic. But scripter Alexandra Long, in her first and only screenplay, navigates these traps to paint an illuminating portrait of two very different relationships at two distinct life junctures, in turn exploring the spectre of old relationships on new ones, how past cruelties and regrets can continue to shadow and haunt us into the present, and what constitutes happiness and whether we’re ever truly cognisant of this. On the technical side of things, camerawork, wardrobe, and art direction further distinguish the two periods from each other, giving the flashback passages a bohemian sheen differentiating them from the more burnished present-day scenes.
* For more information on Australian films of the 1990s with women directors, I cannot recommend highly enough the website Generation Starstruck, an exemplary resource created by scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.