Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of reviews of current release Australian feature films The Tunnel, Here I AmOranges and Sunshine and Cane Toads: The Conquest. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from various sources. You’ll make up your own mind, of course!

The Tunnel

On 18 May, The Tunnel was released simultaneously on DVD, BitTorrent and PayTV’s Showtime. The film’s creators (producers and writers Julian Harvey and Enzo Tedeschi, director Carlo Ledesma and executive producer Andrew Denton) used what they’ve dubbed ‘the 135K project’ to raise the budget for the film.  Individuals could jump online and buy a frame of the movie which in turn has facilited the release of the movie online, for free. Luke Buckmaster over at the Crikey film blog Cinetology gives a good rundown of the film’s funding and distribution strategy, but also writes that it succeeds as a thriller, calling it “a visceral horror-umentary”, noting that its “cinematic spookiness that will infect even hardened genre aficionados with a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.” Richard Gray and Sarah Ward of The Reel Bits are similarly impressed, calling The Tunnel “an effective horror effort filled with tension and terror.” They note that “although the innovative funding and distribution model championed by the feature is garnering it the most attention, the film deserves to be watched based on its merits.”

In a review published on Twitch, Brandon Tenold argues that The Tunnel takes its time to get going, with the scary thrills only entering half way. Tenold nevertheless praises the production values and acting, and writes that it’s a “solid entry into the ‘found footage’ genre and…whether you like it or not, it’s one movie you won’t feel guilty about downloading.” 

Richard Kuipers, writing for Variety (login required), echoes criticism about the film’s slow start, and would have liked it to reveal more about the “malevolent presence” the characters encounter. Nevertheless, he calls The Tunnel “a pretty good spook show”, writing that its “ace lensing on a multitude of formats contributes significantly to the film’s believability as a found-footage item.” 

Here I Am

Beck Cole’s debut feature film Here I Am premiered at the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival and released nationally on 2 June. Reviewing for the Age newspaper in Melbourne, Philippa Hawker praised the film, writing that “[q]uietly, and with an unobtrusive grace, Here I Am explores harsh truths, everyday realities and intimations of change.” Hawker praises the “wonderfully eloquent presence” of Shai Pittman in the central performance .

Over at Movietime on Radio National Julie Rigg praises the warmth and heart of the film, particularly found in the scenes at the women’s shelter in Temple House. Rigg argues, however, that the film leaves us guessing too much, and that some of the performances are uneven.

Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban echo similar praise and criticism at Urban Cinefile. Urban notes echoes and parallels between Here I Am and Mad Bastards, both of which portray Indigenous characters fresh out of jail and trying to reconnect with estranged children. Keller writes that a few of the performances “are a little shaky” though she singles out Pittman and Bruce Carter, who plays the love interest, for special praise. Keller also likes the fact that the film “shows there is a way forward, even if the path is tough.”

Reviewing for SBS Film, Fiona Williams gives Here I Am three and a half stars, calling it “a rough diamond”. She likes the fact that “Cole keeps the tone from devolving into ‘message movie’ territory by populating the film with ballsy women who inject elements of brashness and comic relief.” Williams also praises Thornton’s intimate camera work, and the film’s soundtrack, roving from PJ Harvey, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the lyrics of Archie Roach’s anthem, ‘Walking into Doors’.

Cane Toads: The Conquest

Cane Toads: The Conquest is a 3D documentary horror film about the environmental devastation left in the wake of the giant toads’ unstoppable march across Australia. Director Mark Lewis first covered the subject matter in his 1988 hit doco Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.  Myke Bartlett over at The Weekly Review says it’s a pity cane toads don’t have the same box office pull as Cate Blanchett as this new movie is possibly “the funniest film of the year.”

Sarah Ward, writing at The Reel Bits calls the film “informative, amusing and unconventional…an engaging and irreverent take on the nature documentary genre.” Michael Lee of  Film-Forward.com, who saw the film at its world premiere at Sundance 2010, finds the subject matter “undeniably fascinating” and writes that this particular documentary is the perfect Sundance response to the 3D phenomenon – “the right mix of sarcasm and visual flair.”

On a more muted note, Peter Galvin at SBS Film enjoys the documentary, yet argues that it isn’t significantly different from Lewis’s previous film about cane toads, and that it doesn’t feel like it’s “nearly as much fun” as the earlier film. Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from ABC’s At the Movies also remember the earlier film as being funnier, with both of them agreeing on a three star rating.

On the other hand, Anthony Morris, writing for The Big Issue (review reprinted on It’s Better in the Dark) finds the film extremely funny, and argues that “The 3D is never a cheap trick [but is]…used to bring viewers into the film – and the ground-level world of the slow-moving yet relentless cane toad.” Morris selects the film for the ‘standout’ review of the fortnight, and awards it four stars.

Oranges and Sunshine

Oranges and Sunshine key art AustraliaCritics have praised this heart-rending true story of Britain’s child migration for its lack of emotional manipulation or sentimentality. For example, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton from At the Movies agree that Oranges and Sunshine is restrained, unsentimental and yet incredibly moving, with both critics agreeing on four stars. Richard Kuipers, reviewing for Variety (login required) writes that the film is so moving that audiences may be in tears within minutes of starting to watch Oranges and Sunshine. Yet Kuipers praises the film for its lack of sensationalism, singling out Denson Baker’s cinematography and Lisa Gerrard’s “discreet musical score” for commendation.

Marl Naglazas, reviewing for The West Australian praises screenwriter Rona Munro for creating a script that’s able to “keep a very tight lid on the sentiment, treating it as more of a detective story instead of a conventional melodrama and allowing the emotion and outrage to bubble to the surface.” However Empire’s David Hughes argues the opposite line, that “in its studious avoidance of melodrama, it’s almost too low key for its own good.”

Over at TheVine, Alice Tynan applauds lead actress Emily Watson, arguing that she’s perfectly cast as the gentle but tough-minded social worker Margaret Humphreys. Tynan also praises director Jim Loach for his “impressive craftsmanship and keen emotional intelligence” but finds the film’s pacing uneven, suggesting the material may have been better served by a television mini-series.

Thomas Caldwell, writing for Cinema Autopsy, commends Oranges and Sunshine for functioning “as both entertainment and as a piece of social awareness.” Caldwell writes that with this film Jim Loach “has announced himself a distinctive cinematic voice who is able to handle complex and difficult subject matter with sensitivity and skill.”

Check out these films on the big screen now, while they’re in the cinemas, and feel free to drop back and leave your comments and opinions.

Our next Reviews Wrap will cover Blame and Sleeping Beauty.

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Tough and Tender: An interview with Emily Watson (Oranges and Sunshine)

Tough and Tender: An Interview with Emily Watson

Emily Watson

''This felt like an important story to tell, and really worthwhile." Emily Watson, about acting in 'Oranges and Sunshine'

When Emily Watson first worked in Australia, it was back in 2005, on the extraordinarily difficult shoot of John Hillcoat’s Western The Proposition. “We were staying in Winton, right there on location in the outback and it was just so unbelievably hot [with temperatures up to 50 degrees] that it was insane!” she says with a laugh on the phone from London. “But shooting Oranges and Sunshine was tough in a different way. My mother passed away just as we were about to start shooting in Australia and I had to go home and then come back. I was very fragile, and the material was very… ‘emotionally stretching’, I would say.”

The material Watson is speaking about is the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker who discovered one of the most significant social scandals of recent times. Working during the 1980s, she began to learn that thousands of children in state care had been deported from the UK to Commonwealth countries, a practice which only finally ceased in 1970. A large number of these now-adult children were living in Australia, completely estranged from their families, and dealing with the aftermath of growing up in institutions, where many had suffered horrific abuse. Promised ‘oranges and sunshine’, the children had instead been used as free labour, and even found themselves with debts to pay back for their ‘board’. Working almost single-handedly, Humphreys set about researching and reuniting thousands of families, a process that is documented in her book Empty Cradles. A version of that story is now told again in Oranges and Sunshine, a feature film directed by Jim Loach, written by Rona Murray and produced by Camilla Bray and Emile Sherman.

The choice of Emily Watson to play the real life Nottingham social worker seems perfect. The two time Academy Award® nominee (who has won a multitude of other awards) has starred in a diversity of arthouse fare like Breaking the Waves, Hilary & Jackie, Angela’s Ashes and Wah Wah. She’s known for the quirk and intensity she brings to her roles, which are never the bland and pretty girlfriend parts. There’s a steely strength alongside the warmth and tenderness of her persona, which makes Watson a natural fit to play the no-nonsense Margaret Humphreys, a woman who becomes a kind of mother and champion to the damaged people she encounters (two of whom are impressively depicted by David Wenham and Hugo Weaving). As the film’s director, Jim Loach, says in the press notes, “I just fundamentally felt that I could believe her as a social worker. For an actor of a certain stature, it’s a challenge to put them in a tower block in Nottingham and really believe it.” And with Emily Watson, believe it we certainly do.

Q&A with Emily Watson

AFI: What were the aspects of this character that attracted you most?

Emily Watson: One of the things I wanted was to show her goodness. In a very understated way, and without trying to be so, she’s just a very moral person. She’s driven by a sense of moral duty and justice, and she just gets on with it, often making massive sacrifices.

AFI: The first scene in this film actually shows Margaret, in her role as a contemporary social worker, removing a baby into care, taking it away from its mother. Even though this is traumatic, it’s done with care and gentleness, and the sense that this baby is going to retain some contact with its family. That’s an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the story of those other children who were removed from their families, isn’t it?

Emily Watson: Yes, I think that’s an interesting point of entry into the film, in terms of social work. Social workers are very pleased about this film generally, because they feel it’s the first time they’ve had a positive portrayal in film. You don’t usually see social workers in film, and when you do they’re certainly not the hero. It’s usually in term of them taking away kids and splitting up families. Social workers get quite a bad rap, usually.

Emily Watson and David Wenham in 'Sunshine and Oranges'.

Len (David Wenham) shows Margaret (Emily Watson) Bindoon where he grew up in the film 'Oranges and Sunshine'.

AFI: The film shows Margaret Humphreys taking on an enormous burden – in hearing and documenting and fighting for the rights of all these displaced people. She comes close to a nervous breakdown, so she really pays a heavy price for doing so, doesn’t she?

Emily Watson: Yes, what she did was just extraordinary. She kept going because she had to. She didn’t have an infrastructure or system to support her, and yet she just kept going. She set it up. She made it happen. She absorbed a lot of other people’s pain and stress and hurt, and I think that takes its toll. In fact she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the impact of what she’d been hearing.

Margaret (Emily Watson) and Jack (Hugo Weaving) in 'Oranges and Sunshine'.

Margaret (Emily Watson) and Jack (Hugo Weaving).

AFI: The film is also interesting in terms of portraying a working mother. She struggles with the fact that she has to leave her children for long periods of time. Did you identify with that work and motherhood conflict?

Emily Watson: For a woman with children it’s very, very hard. I have to live it in my life. I have to go away to work, and with two small children it’s very tough. And I’m just an actress! What I do is nothing compared to what she was doing, the challenging territory she was dealing in. But it was a very great pleasure to be involved in something that felt worthwhile in a way.

Director of Oranges and Sunshine, Jim Loach.

Jim Loach, director of 'Oranges and Sunshine'.

AFI: What was director Jim Loach like to work with?

Emily Watson: He’s great. Jim is very good at surrounding himself with like-minded people. He’s very gentle. On a lot of sets there’s all this testosterone flying round, directors with great big macho egos striding around. But Jim’s not like that. His way of working is very simple and calm. This was a pretty low budget film [A$4.5 million] and it had an intimate feel to it – none of that posturing and bullshit going on.

AFI: Jim’s father is the renowned UK director Ken Loach, who is also an executive producer on the film. Did you have much to do with him?

Emily Watson: He wasn’t around much but he was definitely involved through his production company. It was interesting, I went to a screening of the film early on and there was the film’s lawyer there. And I said to him, ‘how are things in the film world?’ – you never know what to say to film lawyers! And he said, ‘I don’t really know. I’m a human rights lawyer actually, and I only do this as a favour to Ken Loach.’ So that’s the kind of person Ken Loach is – his film lawyer is a human rights lawyer!

AFI: You have an extraordinarily long list of awards and nominations. What’s it like for you when you win or are nominated for an award? Do you enjoy that part of the job?

Emily Watson: It’s always nice to be recognised for your work. It’s always chuffing. If you’re on the campaign trail with a movie when the distributor is trying to go after awards, that’s always intense and incredibly hard work. Oscar nominations don’t happen by themselves. You have to do a hell of a lot of…It’s a bit like a political campaign. You have to, um, ‘make your presence felt’ is probably the best way of putting it. It’s not my favourite part of the job.

AFI: What is your favourite part of the job?

Emily Watson: Being on set and just working, just doing it. I just find every day of acting thrilling and exciting and very, very satisfying.

AFI: Are there certain kinds of roles you’re sick of being asked to play?

Emily Watson: I tell you, my priorities have changed. It used to be all about the part, and the director, and the ‘high art’ of it all. But now, it’s all about where it’s shooting, and for how long. And is it in the school holidays? And for how much money? Practical considerations, because it’s all about my children.

AFI: Thanks for speaking with us, and best wishes.

Oranges and Sunshine is in national release from 9 June, 2011.