The Custodian

(John Dingwall, Australia, 1994)


Although Australian television drama can boast its fair show of gritty, complex depictions of the intertwined worlds of crime and law enforcement, our movies never quite seem to hit the mark in this genre.

On the rare occasions that a film of this type ends up being made here, it usually has an abstract, schematic, even cartoonish feel. It’s always the clash of a sweaty Mr Big, underworld lord of Kings Cross or St Kilda, with a struggling, salt-of-the-earth cop and a youthfully intrepid journalist.

John Dingwall’s limp thriller The Custodian is a cartoon all the way. The film looks to America for its inspiration: specifically, the work of Sidney Lumet, whose portraits of cops in crisis are amongst the most morally intricate and disturbing in modern cinema. Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981) explored an extraordinary real-life phenomenon – the guilty drive of cops to commit crimes and then confess to them, bringing down all their corrupt partners in the process.

This film starts from much the same idea, but then proceeds to empty it of all tension, ambiguity and intrigue. It introduces potential anti-heroes (Anthony LaPaglia as the central cop, Kelly Dingwall as an idealistic reporter) but quickly irons out their kinks so they can function as bland, conventional do-gooders. Villainous figures (including Hugo Weaving as a cop on the take) growl menacingly, but hardly convince the viewer that they could ever be really ruthless or murderously violent.

The oddest aspect of The Custodian is its relentless emphasis on a network of male-female relationships dotting the periphery of the story. Dingwall is clearly trying to construct the meaning of his tale from a set of comparisons: masculine vs feminine values, public vs private life, redemptive love vs decadent corruption.

Yet the women characters are so poorly rendered, and the intimacies between all characters so weakly staged, that this whole theme simply vanishes, leaving only the bare, mechanical bones of an uninspiring plot.

© Adrian Martin December 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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