With this, his second adaptation of a book by E.L. Grant Watson (after last year’s “The Nun and the Bandit”), Australian auteur Paul Cox moves another step away from urban relationship films that established him on the international arthouse circuit. “Exile” is an ambitious, sometimes hallucinatory drama that tackles themes difficult to bring off successfully in the cinema. Responses are likely to be mixed.
Based on the novel “Priest Island,” pic unfolds in a kind of timeless limbo, which could be the last century or even earlier, and with a setting not specifically Australian. A young man, Peter (Aden Young), has been caught stealing sheep he needed as a dowry in order to marry his sweetheart, Jean (Claudia Karvan).
His punishment is to be exiled to an uninhabited island, with only rudimentary tools to support him. He thus becomes a kind of Robinson Crusoe who lives a miserable, lonely existence only a few hours from his home, but with the knowledge he’ll be killed if he tries to return.
The early scenes are extremely leisurely, as Nino Martinetti’s camera lovingly explores the rugged coastline of the island (pic was shot in a national park in southern Tasmania) and Peter begins to carve out a primitive life for himself. Meanwhile, Jean has been forced to marry another man (Nicholas Hope, star of “Bad Boy Bubby,” again scoring well) and soon becomes pregnant, but she loses her baby in an agonizing childbirth sequence.
The slender narrative takes off when Mary (Beth Champion), a servant at the village inn, becomes so intrigued by gossip about the handsome exile that she decides to join him, taking with her a few chickens and a goat. The pair soon become lovers, though Peter is still haunted by visions of Jean, and eventually Mary has a baby son. A friend brings the village priest (Chris Haywood) to the island for a baptism and marriage ceremony.
With “Exile,” Cox poses a few challenges for his audience. Story is slim, dialogue is minimal, and much time is spent simply exploring the inhospitable coastal terrain. As in “The Nun and the Bandit,” the writer/director is interested in the spiritual elements of the piece. Patience is required in the early scenes, and the film clearly isn’t for everyone, but gradually it exerts a spell.
The three young principal actors are new to the Cox fold. Young, who registered strongly in “Black Robe,” has the right physical presence as the lonely exile who’s gradually entranced by a persistent and loving women he doesn’t at first think he can love. Champion radiates innocence and determination as the woman who defies convention to join the outcast, and Karvan is touching as the woman forced to marry a man she despises.
Haywood’s bald, prissy priest injects the film with a touch of welcome humor, but another Cox regular, Norman Kaye, is stuck with the film’s weakest character , that of the philosophizing ghost of a priest once banished to the same island.
Paul Grabowsky’s music is beautifully mood-setting. Cox’s own editing is a touch indulgent, and some tightening, especially in the first reel, would have been beneficial.