A woman kidnapped by a secret admirer turns the tables on her captor with unexpected results in "Perfect Strangers," an intriguing, virtually unclassifiable romantic thriller fantasy.

A woman kidnapped by a secret admirer turns the tables on her captor with unexpected results in “Perfect Strangers,” an intriguing, virtually unclassifiable romantic thriller fantasy. Centering on another fine performance from Rachael Blake, the Aussie actress in “Lantana,” and featuring an enigmatic turn by Sam Neill (in his first Kiwi based film since “The Piano” 10 years ago), Gaylene Preston’s generally taut and well directed pic is her best work in film to date and should result in solid business in Australasia with every chance for arthouse and ancillary in other territories.

Thematically, “Strangers” has links to Preston’s accomplished first feature, “Mr. Wrong” (1984), a supernatural yarn in which a woman was menaced by a mysterious man. Both elements resurface here, but in a fresh, update approach. Melanie (Blake) lives alone, works in a fish and chips shop in a small city and spends her nights in bars where she and her girlfriends (Robyn Malcolm, Madeleine Sami) regularly pick up men. Lonely and unfulfilled, she drunkenly allows herself to be picked up by a handsome stranger (Neill) whose name she never discovers.

Opting to go back to his place, Melanie is surprised when the stranger takes her to a boat, where he offers her champagne before she falls asleep. She awakens to find they are at sea, heading for a small island where the man apparently owns a small cabin. Though she’s concerned about not showing up at work, she allows the man to prepare a candlelit dinner for her.

Although Melanie is sexually willing, the man refuses to go to bed with her, insisting that she love him and marry him. He reveals that he knows all about her life and, fancying himself a Prince Charming, wants to “rescue” her. When she scoffs at him, things turn nasty.

Next, in the first of several unsettling reverses, Melanie turns the tables on the man, stabbing him in the stomach with a cooking knife. Almost immediately she realizes that, if he dies, she has no way of getting off the island, so she sets about helping staunch the blood.

Several twists and turns follow, including the re-introduction of Bill (Joel Tobeck), who was briefly seen in the bar. Pic ends with an epilogue which draws together all the strands and moods of the film.

Blake is sensational as the woman who proves to be a survivor, while Neill brings his customary charm, plus a dash of menace, to the role of the obsessive would-be lover. As the third participant in what is virtually a three-handed romance — albeit a very strange one — Tobeck is extremely effective, successfully transforming what at first seems to be a boozy, uncouth loudmouth into a more rounded character.

“Perfect Strangers” is aces in all technical departments, handsomely photographed in Scope by Alun Bollinger and with a soundtrack that effectively conveys tension and shifts in mood.

Perfect Strangers

New Zealand

Production

A 20th Century Fox release (in Australia and New Zealand) of a Gaylene Preston Prods./Huntaway Prods. production, in association with the NZ Film Commission, NZ Film Production Fund, NZ on Air and Television New Zealand. Produced by Robin Laing, Gaylene Preston. Directed, written by Gaylene Preston.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Alun Bollinger; editor, John Gilbert; music, Plan 9; production designer, Joe Bleakley; art director, Jeanette Goode; costume designer, Helen Bollinger; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Saville, Tim Prebble, Michael Hedges; line producer, Trisha Downie; associate producer, Jay Cassels; assistant director, Terri Kilmartin; casting, Liz Mullane (NZ), Maura Fay Casting (Australia). Reviewed at Melbourne Film Festival, July 28, 2003. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

The Man - Sam Neill Melanie - Rachael Blake Bill - Joel Tobeck Aileen - Robyn Malcolm Andrea - Madeleine Sami
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