Director: Paul Cox
Stars: Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Julia Blake, Terry Norris, Chris Haywood, Norman Kaye
Director Paul Cox’s final work, 2015’s Force of Destiny, opens with a title card dedicating the film to two departed collaborators: actress Wendy Hughes – star of the superb Lonely Hearts as well as Kostas, My First Wife, Lust and Revenge, and Salvation – and Oliver Streeton, art director on Human Touch and title designer on that film, A Woman’s Tale, Innocence, and The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. This dedication, combined with the film’s subject matter – dramatising Cox’s own brush with liver cancer – and the fact its director died just a year after its release, casts a shadow of mortality over the filmmaker’s swansong effort. Having said that, Cox grappled with matters of mortality throughout his whole career.
This theme surfaces in Innocence, which centres on former lovers reuniting in their seventies. Andreas (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell), a widow, writes a letter to his former love Claire (Julia Blake) proposing that they catch up. They meet, rekindle their love for one another, and embark on an affair, leading to the erosion of Claire’s fourty-year marriage to John (Terry Norris). This was the first Paul Cox film to appear on my radar, but it was not a film I sought out: as an 18-year old filmgoer of dubious taste at the time of its release, I avoided Innocence like the plague, dismissing it as geriatric romance. In retrospect that was my loss, but also a gain, as the passage of time has equipped me to appreciate the film better than I would have at age 18.
A few months ago I reviewed the film Words and Pictures, and while it wasn’t much to my liking I appreciated the pairing of mature leads in Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Onscreen romance is generally the domain of the young. Much of it is also predicated on amorality that’s mutually agreed upon in a silent pact between filmmaker and filmgoer: an unblinking, unspoken acceptance of dodgy behaviour – lying, cheating, betrayal, spying, stalking – sugar-coated and brushed off as Hollywood confection and convention, just part and parcel of the genre. Remember Sleepless in Seattle when Meg Ryan breaks up with her fiancé Bill Pullman to meet up with Tom Hanks atop the Empire State Building? Or While You Were Sleeping, where Sandra Bullock lies her way into the lives of a comatose man’s (Peter Gallagher) family by pretending to be his fiancé, only to end up in love with his brother (Pullman again)? Or My Best Friend’s Wedding, where Julia Roberts does everything she can to destroy her “best” friend’s (Dermot Mulroney) wedding to Cameron Diaz? Innocence is a rarefied specimen; not only is there a greater vulnerability to the romance that comes with the age of its protagonists, there’s also a greater sense of the collateral damage in the form of the dissolution of Claire’s marriage. Things get ugly. Things get messy.
The film showcases strong work from three industry veterans, who sell the shared history and sometimes tender, sometimes thorny interactions between their characters, as well as some of Cox’s more didactic ruminations on love and life. The late Tingwell delivers an understated performance, quietly harnessing 50 years of accumulated audience affection to Andreas’ romantic cause. Blake, an actress who has lent class, warmth, and occasionally haute chilliness to films like The Getting of Wisdom, Patrick, My Brilliant Career, and Travelling North, plays Claire with dignity and fragility. And Norris – who’d only returned to film and television a few years earlier after a long absence, but has been prolific since – is alternately clueless, callous, and sympathetic as John. Also deserving some praise are Kenny Aernouts and Kristine Van Pellicom as younger versions of Andreas and Claire. We see them only in fleeting dialogue-less flashbacks, but both make strong impressions, adding colour and personality to what could have been merely ‘filler’ scenes.