On paper, the idea of an odd-couple generation-gap road movie hardly seems promising, so it’s a minor miracle that writer/director Bill Bennett has managed to inject life into such familiar material. Helped by the popularity in Australia of toplined Ruth Cracknell (she stars in the hit TV series “Mother and Son”) and buoyed by a tart screenplay and stylish direction, this first production from the Dendy Films exhib-distrib outfit should be a Down Under hit, with strong possibilities of offshore interest.
It opens with a sequence that evokes Peter Weir’s “Fearless.” An elderly woman wanders, battered, bloodied and obviously in shock, on a deserted country road; Andrew Lesnie’s widescreen camera cranes and circles her to reveal, gradually, a wrecked car and then the body of her husband, who, we learn, caused the accident when he fell asleep at the wheel.
A year later, Rose (Cracknell) is ready to leave hospital to return to her family farm, a six-hour drive from Sydney, to celebrate her 70th birthday. Her ambulance driver, Spider (newcomer Simon Bossell), is an anti-social youth who’s furious to be forced to spend his last day on the job driving an old biddy cross country; his only aim is to get back to the city in time for the wild party he’s planned.
Naturally, the two get on each other’s nerves from the start, with Rose disapproving of Spider’s reckless drivingand loud heavy metal music, and Spider bored by the crotchety old femme’s constant nagging. Thanks to Bennett’s sharp script and the top-flight performances, these scenes play with a surprising freshness and very Australian sense of humor.
Inevitably, the two antagonists warm to, and learn from, each other during the long journey, but Bennett manages to keep sentimentality and obviousness at bay, partly because the tragedy of Rose’s life is never forgotten. A totally unexpected, and well-staged, scene in which the ambulance hits a kangaroo and crashes, comes as quite a jolt about halfway through.
Inevitably, the pair share a series of encounters, the most important being with Jack (Max Cullen), a laconic old beekeeper. Cullen gives a warm, funny perf — and almost steals the film — while providing a mature love interest for Cracknell. There’s also a sexist truck driver (Bruce Venables) who gives Rose and Spider a ride, and Rose’s disagreeable son (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) and daughter-in-law (Jennifer Cluff).
Cracknell gives a feisty, acerbic performance as the crotchety Rose and, surprisingly, partakes in not one, but two, nude scenes, in one of which she shares a bathtub with Bossell. Bennett, who has made low-budget films until now, has clearly gone to some pains to avoid mushiness, and he’s succeeded with a frequently funny picture. He has also handled the material with visual flair, resulting in his best direction to date. Lesnie’s camera work deserves high praise for its fluidity, with some intricate and extended shots.
The main problem in selling “Spider & Rose” will be to convince audiences that this isn’t the formula picture it appears to be. Word of mouth should be positive for this disarming, witty and, at times, genuinely touching picture.