Review: ‘That Eye, the Sky’

"That Eye, The Sky" is a lyrical, faithful screen adaptation of 33-year-old Tim Winton's mystical book, which has already been the basis of a successful legit production in Australia. Like the source material, John Ruane's film, which is sumptuously photographed by Ellery Ryan, offers subtle pleasures but no obvious dramatic highlights, and will have to be handled with great care in order to find a receptive audience.

“That Eye, The Sky” is a lyrical, faithful screen adaptation of 33-year-old Tim Winton’s mystical book, which has already been the basis of a successful legit production in Australia. Like the source material, John Ruane’s film, which is sumptuously photographed by Ellery Ryan, offers subtle pleasures but no obvious dramatic highlights, and will have to be handled with great care in order to find a receptive audience.

The mood created here is somewhat akin to that of “The Rainmaker,” with the setting a small, troubled community visited by a stranger who promises help and salvation but who may well be a phony.

The Flack family lives in harmony in a small farmhouse by a river. Alice (Lisa Harrow) and Sam (Mark Fairall) have two children, Tegwyn (Amanda Douge), a blossoming teen, and Morton (Jamie Croft), known as Ort, an inquisitive, sensitive 12-year-old. The fifth member of the family is a senile grandmother (Alethea McGrath.)

The peace of the Flack household is rudely disrupted when Sam is involved in an offscreen motor accident and, after a spell in the hospital, is returned home still in a deep coma. Alice tries to cope for a while, but is only too happy when a stranger, Harry Warburton (Peter Coyote), arrives on the doorstep, offering help and apparently knowing all about the family’s situation. It seems that Harry is a wandering evangelist, and he is soon accepted as a new father figure by Ort. Alice seems attracted to the stranger, but Tegwyn remains suspicious and hostile, suspecting, with some justification, that Harry’s interests in the family are as much sexual as spiritual.

This is very different from Ruane’s first feature, the engaging black comedy “Death in Brunswick,” and indeed seems quite a risky project. It’s a film about mysticism and a miracle that is handled in a totally realistic style, a film in which little overt action takes place and even the dramatic climax is deliberately muted.

Audiences looking for more robust filmmaking will stay away, but Ruane’s gentle pic could find appreciative supporters who will be moved by the simple story and situations.

The cast is uniformly excellent, starting with young Croft as Ort, the wide-eyed boy who is a familiar enough figure in this kind of story but who is given an edge here by the young actor. Douge is bewitching as the frustrated teenager trying to cope with mixed emotions, and Harrow brings dignity and strength to the character of Alice. As the mysterious stranger, Coyote gives the story its intriguing centerpiece, though no great demands are placed upon the actor.

But the star of “That Eye, The Sky” is undoubtedly Ryan’s glorious cinematography, which is marred only by the rather cheesy special-effects shots — in which the farmhouse is bathed with a golden glow seen only by Ort.

Fest exposure is indicated for this challenging, but ultimately rewarding, lyric experience.

That Eye, the Sky

(AUSTRALIAN)

Production

A Beyond Films/Australian Film Finance Corp./Film Victoria presentation of an Entertainment Media/Working Title Films production. (International sales: Beyond Films.) Produced by Peter Beilby, Grainne Marmion. Executive producers, Robert Le Tet, Tim Bevan, Fred Schepisi. Directed by John Ruane. Screenplay, Ruane, Jim Barton, based on the book by Tim Winton.

Crew

Camera (Eastmancolor), Ellery Ryan; editor, Ken Sallows; music, David Bridie, John Philips; production design, Chris Kennedy; art director, Brian Dusting; sound (Dolby), Lloyd Carrick; casting, Maura Fay, Rob Bailey; assistant director, Phil Jones. Reviewed at Village Roadshow screening room, Sydney, Aug. 26, 1994. (In Venice Film Festival -- Critics Week). Running time:105 MIN.

With

Henry Warburton ... Peter Coyote Alice Flack ... Lisa Harrow Morton "Ort" Flack ... Jamie Croft Tegwyn Flack ... Amanda Douge Sam Flack ... Mark Fairall Grammar Flack ... Alethea McGrath Mr. Cherry ... Paul Sonkkila Mrs. Cherry ... Louise Siversen Fat Cherry ... Jeremy Dridan
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