Aussie helmer Richard Franklin and screenwriter Everett DeRoche have reteamed for "Visitors" -- a seafaring nail-biter of handsome craftsmanship that springs a few leaks before reaching port. Still, pic is a supremely unsettling piece of psychological manipulation, rooted in Hitchcock and early Polanski.

Aussie helmer Richard Franklin and screenwriter Everett DeRoche, responsible for a series of inventive suspensers — the last of which was 1986’s “Link” — have reteamed for “Visitors” — a seafaring nail-biter of handsome craftsmanship that springs a few leaks before reaching port. Still, pic is a supremely unsettling piece of psychological manipulation, rooted in Hitchcock and early Polanski. Despite a highly commercial sensibility — and reported presales in most international territories — pic’s biggest battle outside Oz will be its misleading designation as an artpic, stemming from a lack of marquee names or explicit gore.

The idea for “Visitors” came about when Franklin, who in recent years has turned his attention to small-scale dramatic films (“Hotel Sorrento,” “Brilliant Lies”), asked DeRoche to write a script that, like their debut collaboration, 1978’s “Patrick,” took place essentially in a single room. DeRoche placed that “room” in a sailboat, which a woman, Georgia Perry (Radha Mitchell in a brave performance), tries to navigate solo around the world.

Despite the discouragement of family and friends, Georgia sets off on the grueling, 140-day voyage, during which she is forbidden to turn on the boat’s motor or to allow any other passengers on board.

Nearing the completion of her trip and stalled in the Indian Ocean’s infamous “horse latitudes,” Georgia is visited by an array of apparitions. By showing us things from Georgia’s unreliable point of view, Franklin and DeRoche evade fully answering whether Georgia is losing her mind or whether she may be trapped in some supernatural Bermuda Triangle.At first, Georgia’s “visitors” are relatively harmless, including her kindly, crippled father (the great character actor Ray Barrett) and her former lovers Kai (Che Timmins) and Luke (Dominic Purcell). But more sinister guests follow, led by her demented elderly mother (an intense Susannah York).Gradually, through flashbacks to earlier points in her voyage and to earlier years in her life — including a particularly stunning one to the childhood accident that incapacitated her dad –Georgia is seen as a woman conflicted by feelings of guilt and unfulfilled obligations, and that her ultimate confrontation with the visitors is a metaphor for going solo not just at sea, but in life.

Georgia’s only traveling companion, her orange-colored cat, Taco, serves as the story’s objective bystander. The device of the acerbic Taco (voiced by Steven Grives), who telepathically communicates with Georgia, is incorporated cleverly into pic’s fabric, and recalls the offbeat humor of Franklin and DeRoche’s prior teamings.

Nevertheless, pic reps the pair’s darkest work to date, pulling us deep inside the psyche of its unstable protagonist. Close-quarters tension compares with “Knife in the Water,” “Dead Calm” and David Twohy’s underrated “Below,” and resulting sense of unease builds slowly over the course of the film, and leaves the audience feeling rattled by the end.

Still, it’s tough to shake the notion “Visitors” might have been better executed as an hourlong episode of an anthology series, where it wouldn’t have had to resort to some of the flimsier ideas — like the skillfully filmed, but ultimately silly encounter with Indonesian pirates — that are used to bring the running time to feature length.

On all technical levels, “Visitors” is aces, with Ellery Ryan’s widescreen lensing making inventive use of the film’s tight spaces, production designer Stewart Burnside’s soundstage ocean seamlessly integrated with the real thing and composer Nerida Tyson Chew’s string-intensive score providingwell-timed jolts to this stylish thriller.

Visitors

Australia

Production

A Palace Films release (in Australia and New Zealand) of an Australian Film Finance Corp. and PMP Showtime presentation of a Bayside Pictures production. (International sales: Beyond Films, Sydney; TF1, Paris.) Produced by Richard Franklin, Jennifer Hadden. Directed by Richard Franklin. Screenplay, Everett DeRoche.

Crew

Camera (Cinevex color, widescreen), Ellery Ryan; editor, David Pulbrook; music, Nerida Tyson-Chew; production designer, Stewart Burnside; art director, Daryl Porter; set decorator, Mandy Willaton; costume designer, Christiana Plitzco; sound (Dolby Digital), Lloyd Carrick; assistant director, Damien M. Grant; casting, Greg Apps. Reviewed at FotoKem, Burbank, Aug. 26, 2003. (In Montreal World Film Festival -- Cinema of Oceania.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Georgia Perry - Radha Mitchell Carolyn Perry - Susannah York Luke Severnson - Dominic Purcell Bill Perry - Ray Barrett Casey Monne - Tottie Goldsmith Kai - Che Timmins Rob - Chris Kirby Voice of Taco - Steven Grives

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