Robert Connolly's sympathy for characters who feel they're trapped in economies rather than living in societies gets another workout in "Three Dollars." An intimate drama of a family man recalling happier times while contemplating a bleak future, "Three Dollars" has the goods for respectable domestic returns, fest exposure and offshore specialty release.

Aussie helmer Robert Connolly’s sympathy for characters who feel they’re trapped in economies rather than living in societies gets another workout in “Three Dollars.” A much darker movie than his crowd-pleasing debut “The Bank” (2001), pic is still far from humorless. An intimate drama of a family man recalling happier times while contemplating a bleak future, this adaptation of Elliot Perlman’s 1998 novel shifts uneasily at times around weighty themes, but its essential humanism still strikes chords. “Three Dollars” has the goods for respectable domestic returns, fest exposure and offshore specialty release. Pic opened domestically April 21.

Eddie (David Wenham), a government chemical engineer, is escorted from the workplace by security guards after his swift dismissal. Voiceover narration triggers the first of many flashbacks to Eddie’s life from the age of 9½.

The number is a significant one, as it’s precisely the interval between each of his accidental meetings with childhood sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Wynter). First glimpsed in Super-8 home movies as the neighborhood girl who moved away at the moment of young love’s first blooming, Amanda is the film’s enigma. Initially, there’s a suggestion Eddie’s fall from grace may be connected with her, but this strand follows a less predictable and more satisfying path.

Bulk of female company Eddie keeps is with wife Tanya (Frances O’Connor), an academic surviving on short-term contracts, and daughter Abby (Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik). Pictured in well-staged flashbacks as students with mutual passion for punk-era group Joy Division, Eddie and Tanya’s relationship hasn’t exactly gone stale; but mortgage payments, job insecurity and the financial pressure of caring for a sick daughter have taken some of the sheen off.

When Eddie is assigned to survey vacant land earmarked for residential development, he refuses to declare it free of toxic waste he’s found. His boss Gerard (David Roberts) decides Eddie is a disposable troublemaker. When Tanya is suddenly axed from the academic payroll, Eddie is left with only the titular sum of money in his bank account.

Eddie is presented as a man whose decency and principles cruelly contribute to his downfall. Screenplay seems to say that these once-desirable assets are now liabilities in a world of bottom-line business managers. In the final act, however, pic loses its well-measured rhythem with Eddie becoming part of the skid-row community in record time.

Film’s worthwhile message about the fragile line between just making ends meet and losing it all is abruptly switched to overdrive here, and plays like a rush tactic to bring Eddie’s connection with Amanda full circle.

Actors are impressive, especially O’Connor as Tanya, whose transition from sparkly student to worried wife provides a touching counterbalance to Eddie’s unflagging optimism. In his third stint with Connolly, following “The Bank” and the Connolly-produced “The Boys” (1997), Wenham makes a solid Everyman as Eddie, though a little too low-key in spots.

Tech package is pro across the board, with d.p. Tristan Milani’s warm lensing of family scenes contrasting with the clinical blandness of office environs. Composer Alan John’s haunting variations on a basic theme are also standout.

Three Dollars

Australia

Production

A Dendy Films/Footprint Films release of a Film Finance Corp. Australia presentation of an Arenafilm production, in association with Showtime Australia, Fandango. (International sales: Becker Films Intl., Sydney.) Produced by John Maynard. Co-producer, Domenico Procacci. Executive producers, Dominique Green, Andrew Myer. Directed by Robert Connolly. Screenplay, Connolly, Elliot Perlman, based on the novel by Perlman.

Crew

Camera (Cinevex color), Tristan Milani; editor, Nick Meyers; music, Alan John: production designer, Luigi Pittorino; costume designer, Sandi Cichello; sound (Dolby Digital), Andrew Ramage; assistant director, Brendan Campbell; casting, Jane Norris. Reviewed at Dendy Opera Quays, Sydney, Feb. 11, 2005. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Eddie - David Wenham Tanya - Frances O'Connor Amanda - Sarah Wynter Abby - Joanna Hunt-Prokhovnik Nick - Robert Menzies Kate - Nicole Nabout Gerard - David Roberts Chamberlain - Christopher Bunworth Old Man Williamson - John Flaus Alfred Price - Terry Norris Tanya's Mother - Julia Blake
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