Secret Friends

(Dennis Potter, UK, 1992)


There are perhaps only two kinds of culturati in our world: those who think Dennis Potter is a genius and those who do not.

The latter group, whose protestations were briefly muted only out of respect for the deceased, will find plenty of ammunition for their dislike in Secret Friends.

This was Potter's feature debut as a director, and it remained invisible in Australia for several years – and little known or seen thereafter.

It is a true stinker. Alan Bates plays John, a troubled amnesic who alternates between drawing delicate flowers and indulging dirty sexual fantasies. His wife Helen (Gina Bellman from Blackeyes) is a shrieking victim of his neuroses, forced to play the role of whore in his bedroom games.

In typically turgid Potter fashion, plot ambiguities quickly pile up. Adultery, murder, childhood trauma may have occurred, but then again – ho hum – the whole business may simply be happening in John's mind as he hurtles through the English countryside on a train.

The oddest part of watching Secret Friends is the recurring, inescapable thought that great chunks of the movie strongly resemble Paul Cox's Man of Flowers (1983) and Bob Ellis's Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1988). This proves either that Potter attended a Summer School on Australian Cinema immediately before doing the film, or that his baleful influence on our sophisticated local culture is more pervasive than even my worst nightmare has hitherto suggested.

It has become customary to suggest that Potter's narrative conceits – his games with fantasy and reality, the constant jumping between past, present and future – approximate a vivid portrait of mental processes. Yet this idea was plumbed with a lot more style and verve by Alain Resnais in the '60s and Nicolas Roeg in the '70s.

As a fledgling film director Potter was utterly uninspired, and this project resembles nothing so much as a solemnly flat radio play in desperate search of pictorial illustrations.

MORE Potter: The Singing Detective

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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