An offbeat murder mystery with a flavorsome twist — the private dick is a dyke — “The Monkey’s Mask” builds and sustains considerable interest through its unexpected characterizations, unusual milieu and atmospheric style. At the same time, Aussie director Samantha Lang’s second feature doesn’t generate the requisite suspense to completely put this adaptation of Dorothy Porter’s widely admired verse novel over in genre terms, making this a tricky sell outside its home territory, where it will open at Christmas. Fests of all kinds, notably gay and women-oriented events, are a natural, while enterprising small distribs in sophisticated international markets might be able to carve a certain niche for this distinctive, edgy, if not entirely successful, drama of crime and sex.
Porter’s book ranks as something of a sensation in literary circles, in that it constitutes a Chandleresque thriller written in non-rhyming verse. The bestselling volume of poetry in Australia since World War II and subsequently published extensively internationally, tome centers on the murder of a member of Sydney’s alt-poetry scene; like Lang’s previous feature, “The Well” (1997), it also comes to hinge on an intense, difficult relationship between an older and a younger woman, only this time an explicitly sexual one.
When punky young poet Mickey (Abbie Cornish) goes missing after reading some of her sexually raw compositions at a popular club, thirtyish freelance p.i. Jill Fitzpatrick (Susie Porter) is paged to track her down. At once, characterization is placed ahead of plot, as Jill’s position as a genuine outsider is extensively, and intriguingly, detailed; not only is she a working-class woman thoroughly unfamiliar with the poetry scene she’ll be required to investigate, but she’s a former cop now on the outs with the law enforcement establishment, she lives alone in the mountains outside the city, and she’s a lesbian, and one who would like to alter her lately celibate situation.
Latter factor comes into play as soon as Jill meets Mickey’s poetry teacher Diana (Kelly McGillis). A sleek blond Yank about 10 years Jill’s senior, Diana is married to an arrogant, handsome young Aussie, Nick (Marton Csokas), but does nothing to discourage Jill’s obvious and immediate sexual interest, and the two quickly launch into an increasingly wild affair. The crescendo of mutual attraction beneath the business-like nature of their initial meetings is nicely handled in the dialogue and performances, resulting in solid viewer allegiance with Jill.
Mickey’s corpse turns up a half-hour in, and when the police prove useless, the girl’s distraught parents call upon Jill to revive her investigation. While continuing her romance with Diana, of which Nick soon learns and appears to approve, Jill dives further into the surprisingly sordid world of modern poetry. Mickey, it seems, had dalliances with everyone, placing suspicion on two much older male mentors, both of whom try to avoid Jill. In fact, Jill’s digging doesn’t get her very far, leading Diana to remark at one point, “You’re a great fuck, but you’re a very ordinary detective.”
Comment reflects directly upon what is perhaps the film’s biggest problem. Although she has minor leads to pursue, Jill never develops much at all in the ways of clues, hunches and suspicions, which creates considerable slack on the mystery side of the story. Therefore, when the killer’s identity is revealed by way of a startling, puzzlingly unprovoked and sexually graphic confession, the effect is exceedingly abrupt and hard to digest, at least initially.
Compensation lies in Jill’s personal story and in the picture’s unusual textures. Her star very much in the ascendant, with “Two Hands” out last year and “Better Than Sex” and “Bootmen” currently on tap, Porter (no relation to the author) builds an engaging and rich performance that wonderfully expresses many aspects of Jill’s wary, outsider-looking-in status.
Without explaining it in full, Jill has a chip on her shoulder that may well prevent her from achieving genuine professional success or inner contentment. But her intriguing combo of guardedness and quiet assertiveness, obvious flaws and strong self-knowledge, and marginal standing that in certain instances allows her to burrow in where standard procedures would never permit, contributes to a shrewdly updated take on the Hammett/Chandler maverick private detective that never for a moment seems contrived or trendy.
An entirely plausible object of Jill’s desire, McGillis’ Diana remains rather haughty and glacial, even after they’ve gotten down in several fully nude sex scenes. Although they definitely get the idea across as to the dynamic driving the women’s relationship, these sequences nonetheless seem a tad arch and unrelaxed given the characters’ lack of inhibitions; no doubt they weren’t the easiest scenes to stage and perform.
Anne Kennedy’s script is awash in tart wordplay and wisely does not attempt to replicate the novel’s versifying in the dialogue or Jill’s frequent voiceovers. Garry Philips’ widescreen lensing finds a most pleasing meeting point of the lush and the gritty, while Michael Philips’ production design, nicely contrasted locations and attentive sound work grace a strong tech package.