Radiance is a refreshingly direct and involving Australian film. It is carried by its wonderful cast – Rachel Maza, Deborah Mailman and Trisha Morton-Thomas as three sisters who reluctantly gather in a Queensland town after the death of their mother.
The characters are deftly and delightfully drawn. Nona (Mailman) is a captivating mixture of earthiness and sentimentality; Cressy (Maza) has all the aloof glamour of her operatic calling; and Mae (Morton-Thomas), initially cold and rigid, makes us appreciate her subdued bitterness.
All these women have "issues". They hammer them out collectively with a fine, low-down sense of humour, and a taste for anarchic liberation.
On many levels Radiance recalls Hannie Rayson's Hotel Sorrento (1995), both in its stage and film versions. Once again we see the tough and tender relationships between sisters at a reunion; a death in the family figures prominently; and a house assumes enormous symbolic and emotional significance. Where Rayson's play was content to paddle in mainly whimsical, Garner-esque waters, Radiance (adapted by Louis Nowra from his play) dives more into the traumatic past of a dysfunctional and damaged family.
But if Radiance emerges as the better work on screen, it is for one very clear reason. The characters here never become mere "emblems", standing for this or that social class or ideological value-system; and their interactions do not resemble simplistic diagrams representing the state of play in contemporary, Aboriginal Australia.
Nowra's characters have the virtue of being vivid individuals rather than functional symbols. Director Rachel Perkins and her ensemble do everything in their power to keep the material immediate and focused.
Radiance is a relatively simple film, eschewing flashbacks and heavy-handed expressionistic devices. Yet, at the same time, it rarely feels stagey or static. Best of all, the film is short and sweet – avoiding the temptation to clutter and embellish which sinks so many artistically ambitious Australian films of the '90s.
To adapt the wise words of Booth Tarkington's novel The Magnificent Ambersons (1918): "It lacks style, but also lacks pretentiousness, and whatever does not pretend at all has style enough."
© Adrian Martin October 1998