The Sound of One Hand Clapping

(Richard Flanagan, Australia, 1998)


What went wrong with this film?


Perhaps, fundamentally, it was the attempt to turn novelist Richard Flanagan (Death of a River Guide) into an instant auteur, with only a little on-the-job training and a watchful producer (Rolf De Heer) by his side. But a literary vision – however majestic and poetic on the page – does not instantly translate into a grasp of cinematic art or craft. On screen, The Sound of One Hand Clapping becomes one huge, unbearable, omnivorous black hole. (It seems mercifully unlikely that Flanagan, since returned to literature, will try his hand at cinema again.)


On one level, this joins a contemporaneous crop of films (such as Under the Skin [1997] and Stella Does Tricks [1996]) about women in desperate search of their identity. For Sonja (Kerry Fox), this involves a journey back to her homeland of Tasmania, and a coming to terms with the present and past reality of her stern, drunken father (Kristof Kaczmarek). Particularly unsettling to Sonja is the enigmatic disappearance, long ago, of her mother (Melita Jurisic).


Flanagan has professed a love for Eastern European cinema, and the ghost of Kieslowksi looms large over this gloomy venture. The film grinds to an agonising crawl within its first few minutes – marked at every point by poor direction of the actors, a leaden flashback structure, and hopelessly overstated symbolism. Cezary Skubiszewski's overwrought music attempts to provide the emotion and energy lacking in the visuals.


Flanagan's opus exhibits a truly maudlin obsession with life's victims. Everyone suffers, everyone is an emotional cripple – felled by history, wounded by family relations, shunned by society. It is a typical case of 20th century blues, thinly and unconvincingly presented: the migrants whose lives were traumatised by the horrors of their old world and then emptied by the unfriendliness of their new world; and their dreary Australian children, adrift in a cultural wasteland, without morality or spirituality.


There is not one decent laugh or moment of true warmth in this movie. Every character is a zombie, in a state of permanent exile, shuffling slowly about with the baggage of their unspoken despair and their painfully maintained solitude. There is no sense of community rituals, no uplifting or pleasant memories – only oblivion. That is, until the arrival of an absurd sequence of revelations, cathartic tears and personal awakenings – cued by (here's a surprise) Sonja's pregnancy.


The Sound of One Hand Clapping comes with an unfortunate but completely accurate promotional tag – a bold declaration that it covers "the only three stories that have ever mattered: birth, death and love!" With a pretentious ambition like that – and a portentous manner to match it – this movie deserves the description that Pauline Kael once unfairly laid on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978): "The film is an empty Christmas tree; you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it".


MORE Australian immigration melodrama: Silver City

© Adrian Martin April 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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