Spectacular locations only partially compensate for lukewarm soul-searching and comic romance in overlong period piece “South Solitary.” Sydney fest opener, about an insecure spinster who accompanies her persnickety uncle to a remote lighthouse and inches toward a sort-of relationship with a taciturn WWI vet, is long on meandering dialogue and short on rewarding character connections. Toplining “Lord of the Rings” alumni Miranda Otto and Marton Csokas, scripter-helmer Shirley Barrett’s first feature since overlooked gem “Walk the Talk” (2000) will likely struggle to attract mature upscale target auds on July 15 domestic release. Modest fest travels and offshore ancillary are indicated.
In some respects, Barrett’s highly anticipated (in Oz) return thematically recalls “Love Serenade,” her bouncy 1996 Camera d’Or-winning debut about romantically maladroit sisters falling for an unusual man in an out-of-the-way place. Big difference here is that the male in “Solitary” is barely seen for the first hour and utters too little of consequence when he finally hits the spotlight.
Early running is dominated by George Wadsworth (Barry Otto, father of Miranda), a lighthouse keeper and fusspot sent in 1927 to take charge of the isolated South Solitary beacon following the suicide of its former guardian. The installation has been poorly run in the interim by assistant keepers Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol) and Fleet (Csokas), a withdrawn Welshman with unspecified mental scarring apparently related to WWI.
By Wadsworth’s side (and arriving with a symbolic lamb in her arms, no less) is his 35-year-old niece, Meredith (Miranda Otto). Shamed and devoid of income since having had an affair with a married man, Meredith has no choice but to rely on her only relative’s support and silently suffer his haughtiness and cruelty. Chipper in the face of everything, Meredith makes little headway in her attempts to befriend Harry’s straight-talking wife, Alma (Essie Davis), and young daughter, Nettie (Annie Martin), an oddball whose treasured box filled with her picked-off scabs may leave some viewers clucking in distaste.
With Fleet barely visible yet clearly marked as the catalyst, the narrative loses propulsion with extended scenes of Meredith wandering around the water and wind-battered locale before falling into a passionless affair with Harry. But soon afterward, the screenplay abruptly jettisons the Stanley family and Wadsworth, leaving Meredith and Fleet alone to slowly and chastely heal each other’s wounds.
Interplay between the two lost souls is well performed and not without its pleasures. Fleet’s deadpan observations on assorted topics are amusing, and Meredith’s growing sense of self injects a welcome note of optimism. But for all the talk and symbolic visuals of lonely lights searching the darkness, the script fails to get fully under the skin of its central couple and engender the emotional investment crucial to this type of slow-burn character study.
Lensing around Cape Nelson and Cape Otway lighthouses in Southern Victoria by d.p. Anna Howard is never less than striking. Production design and costuming are impeccable; string-based score veers toward the twee at times. Other technical contributions are of a high standard.