Friday 30 September 2016

The Current Cinema - Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Sotiris Dounoukos, Australia, 2016)

Jerome Meyer, Maggie Naouri in Joe Cinque's Consolation
This film comes to us ahead of some fairly mighty expectations. For starters and most especially you imagine that the film is going to have to grapple with the special features of its source. Helen Garner’s books and journalism of reportage have their own cache and much of their appeal derives from the way that Garner places herself into the story. For her these events are wrenching and deeply affecting and they take it out of her. She becomes a partisan but often taking a part that fits only her unique and often troubled view.

So in addition to expecting some rendering of the courtroom drama that was part of the events, you wonder how or if the film-makers, especially writer director Dounoukos and his co-writer Matt Rubinstein are going to try and render, if at all, the subjective Garner presence lurking and poking and prodding into all sorts of areas that otherwise might have escaped attention.

So again.  The biggest surprise is that the film doesn’t enter into this territory at all. That might come as something of a shock to readers of the Garner tome. Instead we get a very simple rendering of what might be seen as some basic facts about how Joe Cinque died after his girlfriend filled him up with heroin after telling a few friends that the couple had entered into a double suicide pact. (She then got off a murder charge and most people believe she shouldn’t have. Oops pardon the editorial but it’s of interest simply because she and her lawyers managed to convince the court that manslaughter was all that was involved in these events.)

Somehow or other the book and the events have been ground down into a very simple narrative. A single long flashback, that runs from Joe and Anu’s first meeting to Anu being lead away in handcuffs. We are supposed to be fascinated by two things. One of them is the egocentrism of Anu Singh, an extreme pathological case. The film charts a course of self-centred behaviour extending over years that mostly takes expression in manipulating her long-suffering boyfriend and her Indian girlfriend, the latter being an apparently odd character prepared most of the time to accept Anu’s word and do her bidding no matter how extreme the request. It ends in Joe’s murder and the poor dopey bugger hardly realises at any stage just what is happening to him.

Is it convincing? Are the characters authentic? Do we feel that these people are more than inexperienced actors delivering lines? Do we get even a modest sense of involvement. Nope.

The second element that the film-makers seem to want to let us know about is the view that the national capital, where these events took place, is like some drug of its own – a mediocre depressant sucked up by the general population that turns the residents of the neat suburbs into desperates trying to get out of it by climbing into the grip of heroin or whatever other drug is going.  Canberra is rendered as featureless in medium and long shot. The film gives over to the current trope, derived I think from those Scandi crime series, where time passing is denoted by a  random long shot of the city which has no discernible bearing on the action.

I don’t think Dounoukos does all that well in getting inside the minds of his protagonists and his mise-en-scene in all the conversations and the intimate interior scenes does little. Cut, cut, cut around a dinner table, cut cut, poorly frame an intimate conversation. The photographer doesn’t help much with dim and flat lighting.

But, as Ronald Reagan said in Kings Row, where’s the rest of me. More ambition was needed and I suspect  it needed a writer with a knack to do some dazzling assembly of the elements which would include the courtroom, a far more extended examination of the effects of it all on the bewildered Cinque parents and some rendering of Garner’s own role in writing and reporting.  Who that writer is I wouldn’t know. But whatever,that was all jettisoned and the result is something far, far simpler than Helen Garner's "Joe Cinque's Consolation".

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