After Praise (1999) and now Terra Nova, it seems that Australian cinema has a peculiar attraction to the sub-Tennessee Williams genre of the flophouse melodrama.
In this version of the form, Ruth (Jeanette Cronin) flees to Australia with her young daughter, Tuesday (Eloise Etherington). She takes up residence in a rambling, rundown house peopled with very strange types, including Warren (Teo Gebert), an aggro neo-Nazi youth; Margie (Angela Punch McGregor), a seen-it-all matriarch grasping for love; and an odd brotherly pair, Simon (Paul Kelman) and Dud (Trent Atkinson).
With names like Tuesday and Terra Nova writ large in Martin Edmond's script, we are clearly in for a rough, portentous ride. Proceedings only become murkier with the increasing cascade of Ruth's flashback memories, detailing her incarceration in a mental institution and her dismal family life.
This is an earnest, well-intentioned film, occasionally saved by some good acting, particularly from Kelman. But it is crippled by the exasperatingly flaccid, arthouse style that has been bequeathed to Australian cinema by Paul Cox: stagy, static scenes of talk interspersed with brief, dreamy, imagistic evocations of fantasies and memories. It is all meant to be sublime and scary, but is merely moribund.
Director Paul Middleditch states that he wanted to avoid wallowing in Ruth's status as a victim. He has not succeeded in this. The film is riddled with the fashionable markings of a contemporary victim mentality – in particular, the obscure demonising of a beastly father (Vince Gil).
The other dramatic cliché that comes hand in glove with such wailing is, of course, survivalism -– the plucky assertion that, whatever her psychic scars, the downtrodden victim-hero can ultimately turn her back on the past and march into the future, independent and unafraid.
Fine movies have been made from such a premise, but Terra Nova – with its bizarre, climactic scene of mother (Gillian Jones) and daughter wheeling on demonic Dad on the street – is, sadly, not among them.
Middleditch reloaded: A Cold Summer
© Adrian Martin June 1999