Three sisters reunite to bury their mother and unearth their past in documaker Rachel Perkins’ polished feature debut, “Radiance,” which — excluding Tracey Moffatt’s ghost-story trilogy, “Bedevil” — also is the first commercial feature directed by an aboriginal woman. A fiery, Southern-style melodrama that builds slowly but surely to an emotionally charged conclusion, the film skillfully touches on indigenous questions regarding displacement, heritage, land and belonging, without becoming an agenda movie or sacrificing its universality. International prospects stand to benefit greatly from a strategic festival platform.
Adapted by Louis Nowra from his play, the material never entirely disguises its theatrical origins. But this seems not inappropriate given Perkins’ richly operatic handling of the drama at its most cathartic peaks. Settings such as a verandah bathed in dappled light and the trio of complex, damaged women characters have the feel of vintage Tennessee Williams with a distinctly Australian flavor.
The run-down family home where the three women — each of whom had a different father — are brought together following their mother’s death is perched on a hillside in the sugar cane country of Australia’s tropical north, and looks out onto a nearby island from which the family’s ancestors were driven away.
Embittered by her unshared burden, Mae (Trisha Morton-Thomas) has remained trapped by her sense of duty in the house to care for their prematurely senile mother, who was reviled by the locals as a witch. She resents her sophisticated, convent-raised older sister, Cressy (Rachael Maza), who has pursued a successful career as an opera diva, and whose entrance to the strains of “Madame Butterfly” sets the tone for the drama’s ripe emotional register. Youngest sister Nona (Deborah Mailman) is an exuberant party girl, who appears to have inherited her appetite for men from her mother.
During the 24 hours following the funeral, painful memories surface and old grievances are aired, revealing each woman’s private prison. Mae’s is made of loneliness and martyrdom; Cressy’s of her own unshakable composure and the weight of a secret she has been forced to keep; and Nona’s of the misguided dream of her father as a black prince on a rodeo horse, whose shoes she has tried to fill with a string of men. When Mae reveals the house is to be reclaimed by its owner — and her mother’s lover — they decide to burn it, each of them achieving her own kind of liberation.
While the buildup is unhurried, sparks fly as the three contrasting sisters face off against one another and the drama’s payoff produces real emotional fireworks.
All three actresses have been involved in productions of the stage play; this, combined with a reportedly extensive rehearsal period makes the love-hate sibling bonds seem deeply forged. Maza’s serene, regal air makes her ultimate release more powerful, while Mailman’s plucky irreverence injects a strong vein of humor that dissolves as she becomes the most vulnerable of the three. But Morton-Thomas — the least experienced performer — towers as the sister most closely affected by their mother’s madness.
As much as the women, the physical setting also is central to the story, with d.p. Warwick Thornton harnessing the beauty and loneliness of the bushland and the deserted beach. Interiors also are beautifully lit, and production designer Sarah Stollman gives the memory-laden house its own melancholy personality. Alistair Jones’ music incorporates a range of themes from lazy country to aboriginal chanting.