During the mid '90s, Australian films developed a strange, dual focus. The attention to multiculturalism – dramas of immigration, comedies of different lifestyles – has created an odd social portrait. The vibrancy of Australian culture is solely attributed to its ethnic elements, while its Anglo component is guiltily cast as the dreariest, dumbest, least vital element in the land.
Perhaps this marks some sort of progression on films like Spotswood (1992), which were the last gasp of a smug, self-contained, Anglo-Celtic fantasy. Nonetheless, the picture of contemporary Australia offered by John Ruane's Dead Letter Office is a little disconcerting.
Here, all the life, colour and romance of the story derives from a Chilean refugee, Frank (George DelHoyo), working in a post office. As the Melbourne Film Festival catalogue put it: "His presence inspires magical realism".
Whenever Frank is around, there is dancing, music, poetry and romance. He is in many respects the cliché sexy Latino – the kind of contrivedly soulful, intense guy who would not be out of place in a confection like Il Postino (1994). Next to him, Alice (Miranda Otto) can only register as a fumbling, Aussie dag – the ordinary person par excellence. But at least the film invests Alice with feelings – while making all her friends (such as the guy she occasionally bonks) into lamebrain dorks.
There is the germ of a fine, touching tale in Dead Letter Office, although it is never possible to entirely believe or accept its premise. Deb Cox's screenplay interweaves two sorts of longing for home. Frank is the classic exile figure cut off from the ugly political history of Chile, and from the friends and family he had there. Alice – lacking such a grand backstory – has only her absent father (Barry Otto) to pine for.
Alice worms her way into a job at the dead letter office, in the hope that her communiqués to Dad will finally find their target. Hiring a private investigator may have yielded a quicker result, but that would have interfered with the fairy tale nature of this intrigue. Meanwhile, life in the mildly multicultural post office workspace resembles a low-level mix of Spotswood and a rambling column by Barry Dickins: a maudlin lament for the passing away of the good old days is interspersed with some lifeless banter concerning everyday woes and joys.
Dead Letter Office is watchable, sometimes amusing or touching, but it is rarely more engaging or memorable than an average tele-movie. For me, the film reveals the deleterious effects of our industry's almost desperate infatuation with "storytelling" and "character journeys" over all other aspects of the filmmaking process.
I cannot recall a single moment in this movie when I was thrilled by an expressive camera movement, a telling edit, or an acting gesture perfectly timed and framed. Whatever its passing charms, this is the fatal flaw of Dead Letter Office: it is all story, and no cinema.
MORE Ruane: That Eye, the Sky
© Adrian Martin August 1998