Australian cinema has rarely addressed topical, political matters in its narrative features; shorts and documentaries tend to provide a sanctioned outlet for such social conscience. Our filmmakers, in the main, seem happy to keep exploring the intimate realm of love, sex, friendship and family.
On Australian television, the long-running The Secret Life of Us provides a perfect illustration of this tendency. The only time politics is ever mentioned on the program – in a late night group discussion or a flashback to heady student days – it serves only to reveal the state of the characters' personal relationships. It is thus implied that issues are trivial, or at least secondary to the hallowed realm of private emotions.
Robert Connolly's The Bank is, to its credit, about a different kind of secret life. This is a drama for the age of multinational capital. In a slightly trendy way, it taps into the current anti-corporatist, no-logo vibe prevalent in our community, particularly among the young. The banking system is the film's symbol of corporate capitalism.
The Bank speaks to our desire to know what really goes on inside boardrooms and on trading floors. In particular, it conjures the new world of computerisation in which fortunes can be calculated, gambled and lost in a split second – with scant regard for those whose lives are adversely affected. Like in The Tailor of Panama (2001), we enter a truly scary terrain where money is made and destinies shaped purely on the basis of greedy and often unreal intuitions.
Trying to illustrate a political issue in dramatic terms is a dicey proposition. All too often, the results are schematic and predictable, the characters mere ciphers standing for starkly defined value-systems. The Bank tackles this challenge on two levels.
In the foreground of the story we have Simon (Anthony LaPaglia), CEO of the fictitious CentaBank, and the wonder boy of new technology that he takes under his wing, Jim (David Wenham). Simon is a frankly satanic figure, an emblem of corporate heartlessness, a melodramatic bad guy who strides around growling aphorisms such as "I'm like God with a better suit". LaPaglia expertly gives a steely understatement to this potentially hammy part.
Jim, by contrast, is a weak-willed, vacillating person, gently played by Wenham. He stands for an ascendant social type: the computer nerd who sees all challenges (in this case, the ability to accurately predict stock market fluctuations) as purely technical problems, without looming moral implications. It takes Jim's lover, Michelle (Sibylla Budd) – one of the film's less well-developed roles – to prompt any evident twinges of conscience in him.
The film's ace card, however, is in its secondary story – a tale of ordinary citizens that has true populist appeal. Wayne (Steve Rodgers) and Diane (Mandy McElhinney) are two battlers who find their small business foreclosed by CentaBank. Their attempt to take the corporation to court kick-starts a complicated chain of events that eventually intersect with the main story line.
More important than the plot convolutions are the everyday, social anxieties that Wayne and Diane embody – frustrations about rising interest rates, closed local branches, and the like. This is where Connolly manages to include a characteristically Australian, suburban touch amidst all the high-flying economic transactions. Whether trained on suburbia or metropolis, however, Connolly's camera eye succeeds in showing Melbourne in a refreshingly new light.
The Bank is not much like any previous Australian feature, apart from oddities like Goodbye Paradise (1983). One must turn to American movies like Rollover (1979), War Games (1983) or Sneakers (1992) for an appropriate comparison. And it is obvious on this level that, partly because of a modest budget, Connolly's film lacks a certain Hollywood-style glamour and excitement.
The action-mystery aspect of the project is handled better than in several, contemporaneous local productions (such as The Monkey's Mask  and Risk ), but still has an attenuated or tentative quality, as if a little afraid or ashamed to generate vulgar thrills.
Design-wise, the supposedly high-technological world of the film sometimes looks rather threadbare. And Connolly (like many contemporary storytellers) stumbles over the problem of explaining complex scientific and mathematical principles within the forward flow of a plot: all we get is an occasional flourish of computer graphics, garbled references to chaos theory, and equations scribbled on napkins by Jim in moments of divine inspiration.
But, by the time it builds to its final and finest anti-corporate blows, The Bank proves itself a brave, rousing melodrama with a canny sense of what a mass Australian audience would dearly like to see enacted on screen. I hope its example encourages other Australian filmmakers to explore similar big-picture topics.
© Adrian Martin September 2001