Hotel Sorrento is a troublesome object. I wanted to like it; it has a few things going for it. Adapted from a respected 1990 play by Hannie Rayson, tt features several fine performances from actors including Caroline Gillmer, Ray Barrett and Tara Morice. And it’s directed by Richard Franklin [1948-2007], who is something of an Australian legend – and a fighting underdog in both film-industry and film-culture terms.
When Australian cinema was fixed on making stately costume pictures in the 1970s and ‘80s, Franklin was unpopular in some quarters for his affinity for and skill with several popular genres. He strove to make USA-inspired movies of the horror or thriller variety including Patrick (1978) and Road Games (1981). And he followed that path straight out of Australia, directing intriguing, at times terrific work: Psycho II (1983), Cloak and Dagger (1984) and Link (1986).
Once Franklin returned home, he took another U-turn – maybe not such a wise move, and definitely an untimely one. As the culture at large shifted to the taste-scale of, variously, the genre-games of Quentin Tarantino and the arthouse melodrama of Pedro Almodóvar, Franklin decided to take the “bourgeois drama” route. He landed at the spot from where (as he reasoned) Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi or Bruce Beresford launched the best part of their careers: from the position of respectability. He gathered a number of literary and theatrical properties that he believed would reorient his trajectory appropriately.
The result? From almost its first moments, Hotel Sorrento gave me the heebie-jeebies.
But is this particular property really so anachronistic? Rayson’s play, after all, did seem to strike a chord with its (largely middle-class) audiences in the first half of the ‘90s; the film sticks fairly closely to it. The story centres on Meg (Caroline Goodall), an expatriate novelist based in England. She has written a harsh, patently autobiographical book called (ahem) Melancholy. Back in humble Sorrento, her sisters Hilary (Gillmer) and Pippa (Morice) spend time with their grouchy father (Barrett), and do their best to evade the uncomfortable issues raised by Meg’s novel. Then the announcement comes that this black sheep is returning to visit the family home – the site known affectionately as Hotel Sorrento. If that’s not enough of a catalyst to stir up the old skeletons in the family closet, there’s also a prying pair of locals, Marge (Joan Plowright) and Dick (John Hargreaves), who have their own, heartfelt responses to Melancholy. Then further family tragedy occurs.
This description serves to indicate that Hotel Sorrento starts out as a low-key family melodrama – like so many films these days (especially in the Sundance mode of humanism). A tale of sibling rivalry, blood ties, and unfinished emotional business, all packed into a handy, seasonal get-together. A tale of loss, mourning, and the difficult, ambivalent process of coming to terms with a shared past. But the more it goes on, it seems to be less and less about such staple ingredients of that bumpy but ultimately feel-good genre. The personal story holds its integrity (mainly thanks to the actors), but it’s essentially a platform to address wider, collective issues.
So what is Hotel Sorrento really about? This question is trickier to answer than you might first imagine. Essentially, it tackles the problem of origins, understood in the widest possible sense. Not just the origin of an individual, a family unit or a small community, but of the nation itself! It therefore is – or has pretensions to be – an allegory, posing and exploring the relations that modern-day Australians (and especially women) could and should have to the sometimes ugly legacies of Australian history, behaviour, culture.
For the purposes of the drama, all these big issues boil down to a question concerning the place where the characters have grown up. To wit, what should an Aussie woman of Today, who has tasted all that the Big Wide World has to offer her, make of dear old Sorrento (a coastal town in Victoria)?
The film, like the play, explores ambivalent states and responses. Can one cleanly reject (biological) Father (i.e., patriarchy personified) and Fatherland, or must one struggle to somehow reconcile past and present? How important is it to claim one’s Australianness, even in a radically modified form?
Rayson and Franklin alike come down on the side of a cautious but ultimately redemptive nationalism – they seek to express the “spirit of the land” (starting with the soil, the mountain ranges, the beach, the light …), but in a contemporary, all-inclusive, non-jingoistic way. National pride can be renegotiated and reignited … with all due respect paid by a settler civilisation to the nation’s indigenous people, of course! How anybody derives a Spirit of the Land from that (often tragic) tangle, I’m still not sure.
There’s a lot of Zeitgeist Art going around in the ‘90s. The moment I encounter any of it – whether the painter who presumes to capture the Soul of Modern Europe on canvas, the novelist who takes the Pulse of America, or the composer who seizes a Timeless Yet Changing Asia in a sweeping symphony – I tend to develop a massive seizure and shut down all my receptors. Filmmakers including Wim Wenders have effectively derailed their careers by getting on that bandwagon, and even Krzysztof Kieślowski may be going there with his Three Colours project. Hotel Sorrento, too, suffers from its grandiose, allegorical aspiration.
Rayson is a playwright who works in an identifiably Australian dramatic tradition that runs from David Williamson through to Michael Gurr (Sex Diary of an Infidel, 1991) and Tobsha Learner (The Glass Mermaid, 1994). All these writers conjure situations spotted with emblematic characters: people who stand for a particular way of life, ideology or social stratum. Dialogue exchanges provide opportunities for comparing and contrasting these various, emblematic positions.
The themes of Hotel Sorrento thus form a speckled pattern on the film’s surface. Lines are spoken as if they were wise aphorisms or dinner-party bon mots. Women talk of “small details” and men of the “big picture”. Expatriates rail against the emptiness of the country whilst locals extol its soulfulness. There’s some vague blather about the acutely symbolic differences between melancholy, depression and longing, and about how all these feelings derive from the Aussie Zeitgeist … o tempora, o mores! Old-style Aussies mouth racist epithets, but a new breed looks to a bright, multicultural future …
None of this is deeply developed. What’s worse, such emblematic drama works far less well on screen than on stage. Hotel Sorrento has a theatrical manner that does not transfer smoothly. I do not mean that it is “stagey” (a meaningless critical epithet), or that movies should never feature people sitting around tables chatting at length with each other. On the contrary: I adore a brave, theatrically-inspired cinema when it’s in the hands of Éric Rohmer, Louis Malle or Manoel de Oliveira. And Franklin, while not in that class, sure knows how to stage Rayson’s material with fludity, economy and grace. The real problem is the allegorical mode itself. Even on the stage, I find this form of drama tends to the stiff and the schematic; when it’s transferred to film, it just never breathes or moves in any natural way.
Most of the full-blooded action and catharsis in this story happens off-screen, or in the past. Instead, we follow in excruciating detail the saga of Meg’s chances of winning the Booker Prize (!) as she fights a charge of plagiarism (alas, events do not turn into a rerun of R.W. Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew ). This may be a thematically crucial matter, but it’s a bloody bore to watch.
I’m coming down pretty hard on Hotel Sorrento, I know. There are some things that function OK in it. Franklin is adept at evoking a particular type of fond Australiana: a newspaper boy on his daily delivery, a house cat in Dad’s favourite chair, the incessant sound of a spring door. I have to say, though, that he’s better with that genre of detail than he is with the inner lives of his central women characters. If only Hotel Sorrento could show them, and their domestic environment, with even a fraction of the tenderness and intimate insight that Gillian Armstrong brought to her version of Little Women (1994).
Whether or not Big Picture Fixation is a male trait (as Rayson appears to believe), the temptation to allegory has led writer and director alike to ignore what might have led this story to some concrete, sensual, dramatic truth.
MORE Franklin: Visitors
© Adrian Martin April 1995