In a radical departure from the hip, inner-city realism of his well-received debut, “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives,” New Zealander Harry Sinclair cooks up an eccentric modern-day fairy tale set against magnificent rural landscapes with his audacious sophomore feature, “The Price of Milk.” Full of surreal occurrences and bizarre, sometimes overly precious humor that may make it too rarefied an exercise for wide acceptance, the film’s striking visuals and lush romantic vein nonetheless should ensure a share of theatrical pickups.
Writer-director Sinclair has taken what feels like a children’s fairy tale of bygone times and nudged it into the present with adult elements concerning love and relationship phobias, further embroidering the dreamlike story with understated themes about the entitlement of indigenous people to the land and its bounties. The transformation of an earthy farm setting into an enchanted, magical world gives the film a uniquely idiosyncratic feel.
Two ardent lovers, Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and Rob (Karl Urban), live in a ramshackle cottage on a dairy farm. Driving to town one day, Lucinda has the unsettling experience of hitting a mysterious old woman on the road, who gets up unharmed and disappears into the bushes.
Despite their seemingly charmed existence, soon after the accident, Lucinda begins to suspect that the spark is going out of her relationship with Rob. On the advice of her friend Drosophila (Willa O’Neill), she starts playing minor games of sabotage to provoke some conflict that she hopes will fan the flames of their romance. The ruse works for a time until strange events interrupt their idyll. During the night, the patchwork quilt is stolen from Lucinda and Rob’s bed by a bunch of Maoris later revealed to be nephews of the earlier accident victim, known as Auntie (Rangi Motu).
When Lucinda spots the quilt among hundreds of others through the old woman’s window, she bargains to get it back, eventually swapping all 117 of Rob’s cows for its return. This causes a seemingly irreconcilable rift, made worse by Drosophila’s manipulative efforts to land Rob for herself.
Sinclair reportedly developed the story from a flexible outline during an extended shoot, and while the approach yields occasional rewards in terms of spontaneity, it also creates a chaotic feel that clouds the themes of love and sacrifice and makes the story’s conclusion not entirely satisfying. But despite some muddled plotting, there’s something refreshingly unpredictable about the oddball tale, in which Auntie and her burly boys function as both benign fairies and pernicious goblins.
Cormack (who starred in “Topless Women”) and Urban make sexy, engaging leads. But the film’s most dynamic character is the ever-present landscape of vibrant green pastureland and rolling hills, splendidly captured in the crisp, naturalistic colors of Leon Narbey’s handsome widescreen lensing. Also crucial to the tone is the sweepingly romantic score, performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and consisting of music by Anatol Liadov and other early 20th-century Russian composers.