A producer recently made the intriguing comment that "we Australians rarely make star-driven films". This is quite true; even the most acclaimed local movies such as Lantana (2001) or Look Both Ways (2005) are democratic, ensemble affairs. Cate Blanchett's star turn in Little Fish, however, belongs squarely in the tradition of Maggie Cheung in Clean (2004) or Meryl Streep in Ironweed (1987) – the type of screen spectacle in which a consummate (even histrionic) actor takes on the part of a monumental, low-life screw-up.
Tracy (Blanchett) has obviously never heard the advice that, to change one's life, it is crucial to get far away from the people and activities that feed one's vices. Like everyone in this movie, she is stuck in proletarian hell, the traces of her difficult, sordid past all around her. Her brother, the crippled Ray (Martin Henderson), is still taking drugs and getting himself involved in illicit activities. Her old flame, Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), shows up, promising that he has cleaned up his act – but is that true? Tracy's dream is to open an Internet access joint, but a succession of bank managers look askance at her colourful credit history.
Blanchett makes a feast of the despairing, nervy, ever-resourceful Tracy – while never quite shaking off that air of Great Actress Playing Heroic Everywoman. In fact, almost the entire cast slums it in Little Fish. Hugo Weaving is initially unrecognisable as Lionel, an ex-sports star now pathetically hooked on drugs. Sam Neill plays Brad, an unpleasant criminal with a secret gay life and a faux-elegant wardrobe. Only Noni Hazlehurst as Janelle, Tracy's mother, seems to be a natural in this setting, no doubt due to her many previous roles as a battling Aussie wife and Mum.
It is often said that Australian comedy, especially on television, presents a smug, middle-class view of working-class people and their lifestyles. Although Rowan Woods' work as a feature film director has so far inclined to drama, it too bears the marks of a tendency to look at ordinary people with a voyeuristic, anthropologist's eye.
Beginning with his striking short films (such as Kenny's Love  and Tran the Man ), Woods has obsessively developed a sort of hyperrealism of style when confronted with the urban working class. Their physical gestures and vocal mannerisms seem studied, alien; the kitschy clutter of their kitchens, lounge rooms and bedrooms looks positively baroque. A tone of smarmy irony lurks throughout – and when a version of the Cold Chisel classic "Flame Trees" sung by children appears (twice) on the soundtrack, it is hard not to laugh.
Woods and cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann develop a fiddly, mannered look punctuated by bursts of slow motion and out-of-focus shots, suitably accompanied by distorted, ambient fiddlings from composer Nathan Larson. This style is, on the whole, less successful than it was in Woods's previous The Boys (1998). There is a valiant attempt at elaborating a system of poetic motifs – children as a symbol of innocence, water for cleansing purity, the washed-out over-brightness of the concrete, corporate world – but this quickly coalesces into schematism and cliché.
Although Jacquelin Perske's script for Little Fish has been through the highest-profile screenwriting workshops this country offers, I still found it regrettably clunky in places. The introduction to the characters and their world (including an unnecessary school reunion scene) takes forever to get rolling. Lionel's first scene with Tracy evokes an oddly incestuous, quite misleading association (which could be the fault of unwise direction rather than the script). The entire criminal power-play subplot depends on a hard-to-swallow assumption that Brad would know so little about how his underlings run his business. A key point involving a mysterious envelope that Lionel forces on Janelle is clumsily inserted.
The main motor of the story – Tracy's need to get a large amount of money by any means possible, like the heroine in Abel Ferrara's 'R Xmas (2001) – simply dribbles away. And the ending is just terrible (cue "Flame Trees"). The injunction throughout our industry at present to 'write for character rather than plot' hurts this film as surely as it did Somersault (2004) – even if it does give Blanchett a great platform to strut her stuff.
When The Boys appeared, I was troubled by its modish appeal to morbidity and nihilism, David Fincher-style. In the long years between that feature debut and Little Fish, Woods has obviously decided to shoot for a more upbeat, redemptive sort of storytelling. But if redemption, Aussie-style, amounts to a nostalgic appeal to childhood memories and a jolly frolic in the surf, I prefer the dark, dead end of The Boys.
© Adrian Martin September 2005