(Peter Duncan, Australia, 1999)


There has been a race among several Australian filmmakers to put the biography of composer Percy Grainger on screen. The team led by director Peter Duncan (Children of the Revolution, 1996) and writer Don Watson beat their competition – but the result makes one ponder whether there really is an exciting, cinematic story in Grainger's undeniably odd life.

Passion is in many respects an intelligent stab at the notoriously difficult genre of the biopic. The first crafty decision taken is to focus on a limited period in Grainger's life – one that reflects, in microcosm, the outer forces and inner traits that shaped his entire personal history. Richard Roxburgh attacks the role with a surplus of manic energy.

The film traces a year of Grainger's young adulthood in England, in between the periods of his life spent in Australia and America. Beyond his crises and conflicts in relation to a musical career, the story concentrates on Grainger's troubled relations with three women – the resistant Alfhild (Claudia Karvan), his wife Karen (Emily Woof) and his mother, Rose (Barbara Hershey).

There is perhaps no other figure in our cultural history whose life better juxtaposes rural Australiana, stuffy British manners, and the siren call of a cosmopolitan modernism, than Grainger. Handily for the film's makers, he can be presented as almost a pop culture aficionado before his time – not only appreciating the folk music of his era, but also issuing uncanny prophecies about how dance music and foreign cuisine will one day reign supreme.

These examples point to the frequent clumsiness of the film's exposition. Having determined that Grainger's behaviour arises from about half a dozen impulses – including a fantasy regarding war, a love of nature and a do-it-yourself approach to all things – the film endlessly, mechanically repeats the outward gestures corresponding to these psychological states.

So he runs, sings, declaims, plays silly dress-ups – over and over again. It is as if every scene earnestly screams at the viewer, in a mimicry of silent movie inter-titles: "Here is Percy Grainger – the man, the genius, the devil, the vital force – larger than life itself!"

Yet, on many levels, the film is uncomfortable with its more mannerist and melodramatic aspects. While wisely resisting turning itself into a Ken Russell-style romp (actually, Ken filmed, early in his career, Grainger romping with Delius), it never finds the right pitch for such laughable lines as when Grainger describes his kinkiness as "my madness, my joy"; or when Alfhild's declaration "as a woman, I crave more rules" is topped by Grainger's retort: "As a man, I crave to free you from them!"

Most musical biopics founder, paradoxically, on the depiction of music making itself. Grand, public performances make for fine spectacle – but what about the hard labour of daily practice, or the finicky, time-consuming process of composition? Passion, to its credit, ranges over the various parts of a musical life – although it succumbs to the hoary cliché (derived from Visconti's Death in Venice [1971]) of having Grainger pound piano keys in an atonal rage to express his frustration.

Duncan's direction is far more fluid and assured here than in his two previous efforts; he makes particularly effective and bittersweet use of Grainger's lusher pieces as a counterpoint to the drama. But what director in the world could have shaped a story from Grainger's ragbag of eccentricities, obsessions and lightly perverse relations?

Rose frets, from start to end, about how Percy's particular demon – his predilection for flagellation – will undoubtedly destroy him. Yet the evident truth of the matter is that neither Grainger's intense desires nor his extremely close bond with his mother ever interfere in the slightest with the daily outpouring of his creativity.

In fact, Grainger thrives on his supposed madness – as does his wife. And if the hero does not truly feel conflicted by these matters, it is hard to build an urgent drama around the problems they reportedly cause.

Passion's abiding difficulties in finding a decent narrative line are reflected in its anti-climactic non-ending. Since real life rarely comes neatly sliced up into satisfying, three-act instalments, the filmmakers here try for a poetic framing device – glimpses of Percy aboard a train. It is a lazy, uninspired way of tying up a film that has never managed to find its focus or tone throughout.

MORE artist biopics: Frida, Pollock, Basquiat

© Adrian Martin July 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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