A far cry from the kind of brash, bold Aussie film that occasionallyclicks at Cannes, "Serenade" is comparable to Campion's first feature, "Sweetie," with its sad-funny approach to its two female characters, sisters who are hopelessly maladroit when it comes to matters of the heart. Barrett's touch is far gentler than Campion's, though her vision is equally satiric.

A far cry from the kind of brash, bold Aussie film that occasionallyclicks at Cannes, “Serenade” is comparable to Campion’s first feature, “Sweetie,” with its sad-funny approach to its two female characters, sisters who are hopelessly maladroit when it comes to matters of the heart. Barrett’s touch is far gentler than Campion’s, though her vision is equally satiric.

Vicki-Ann and Dimity Hurley, sisters in their 20s, live in a small house in a seemingly underpopulated town of Sunray (proclaimed as a Tidy Town runner-up).

TX:A Miramax release of a Jan Chapman Prods. production, in association with the Australian Film Finance Corp., NSW Film & TV Office, Film Victoria. (International sales: Beyond Films.) Produced by Jan Chapman. Directed, written by Shirley Barrett. The audience gleans nothing about the girls’ parents, although the unexplained presence of a wheelchair in the living room suggests illness and bereavement. There’s also the impression that the young women have rarely, if ever, ventured outside the confines of Sunray.

Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith) runs a unisex hair salon called Hairport, reads cheap romantic fiction and wears various shades of pink. The only man she was ever seriously involved with had an accident with a chain saw (his fate unknown) , and now she’s lonely and bored.

So is her kid sister, 20-year-old Dimity (Miranda Otto), though she hasn’t yet been involved with a man. She spends her days aimlessly riding around the dusty streets on her bicycle, and sharing sandwiches for lunch (in the decrepit Rotary Park) with Vicki-Ann; in the evening, she works as a waitress at the town’s Chinese restaurant.

And so life goes on until Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov) drives into town to take over the local one-man radio station (3SR,”Sounds of Sunray”). Sherry is what passes for a celebrity in these parts; he used to have a radio program in Brisbane, and even had a (presumably unsuccessful) television gig.

A child of the hippie era now well into middle age, Sherry is a jaded hedonist who’s dropped out to escape the hustle and bustle, as he puts it; more likely, this is the only job he could get in radio. He moves in next door to the Hurleys, and begins his daily broadcasts of tin-pot philosophizing and old songs (Dionne Warwick, Glen Campbell) played on scratchy vinyl (3SR hasn’t caught up with CDs yet).

The film gently and sweetly depicts the tremendous impact Sherry has on the sisters. Inevitably, he seduces both, while making it clear he’s not interested in long-term relationships.

“Love Serenade” is consistently amusing and charming, though brisker pacing (or tighter editing) might have picked up some slack in the second half. Before the mordantly funny climax, there are a few dull patches.

Mandy Walker’s widescreen cinematography beautifully captures the details of this one-horse town, and Steven Jones-Evans’ production design is remarkable for its witty detail. There’s no music, apart from the recordings heard on the radio.

Shevtsov has a distinctive presence that hasn’t been used much in films (he last played a major role in James Ricketson’s “Third Person Plural” back in 1978 ); his vain, lazy dropout, a leftover from another era, is a decidedly offbeat protagonist.

Otto (daughter of actor Barry Otto) is touching as the sensitive and vulnerable yet unexpectedly tenacious Dimity. A scene in which she plucks up enough courage to offer herself to the jaded Sherry is an unexpected combination of humor and pain.

Newcomer Frith has the trickiest role as the rather crass Vicki-Ann, but succeeds in not tipping the sometimes irritating older sister into caricature. All other credits are pro for what was evidently a low-budget effort.

Love Serenade

Production

Love Serenade (Dramatic comedy -- Australian -- Color )

Crew

Camera (widescreen, Atlab color), Mandy Walker; editor, Denise Haratzis; music supervisor, Christine Woodruff; production design, Steven Jones-Evans; costumes, Anna Borghesi; sound (Dolby), Gary Wilkins; assistant director, P.J. Voeten; casting, Alison Barrett. Reviewed at Atlab screening room, Sydney, April 25, 1996. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 101 min.

With

Dimity Hurley ... Miranda Otto Vicki-Ann Hurley ... Rebecca Frith Ken Sherry ... George Shevtsov Albert Lee ... John Alansu Deborah ... Jessica Napier Producer Jan Chapman, whose work with Jane Campion ("The Piano") and Gillian Armstrong ("Last Days of Chez Nous") has met critical and commercial success, has sponsored a promising new writer-director. Shirley Barrett's debut, "Love Serenade," world-preemed in Un Certain Regard, is an oblique vision of love and sex in an isolated Australian town. A shade overlong, pic is nonetheless full of delights.
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