'On Borrowed Time'

A premature eulogy turns into an engaging celebration of Euro-flavored, Oz-based vet auteur Paul Cox in David Bradbury's docu feature.

A premature eulogy turns into an engaging celebration of Euro-flavored, Oz-based vet auteur Paul Cox in “On Borrowed Time.” Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentarian David Bradbury (“Frontline,” “Nicaragua: No Parasan”), pic captures both the charmer and the curmudgeon behind the camera while portraying Cox’s wait for a liver transplant. Multiple collaborators testify to the film-maker’s genius, while clips of everything from “Man of Flowers” to “Innocence” catch the arty essence of his work. A natural setup for Cox retrospectives or Oz sidebars, the docu is guaranteed fest-circuit berths. Pubcasters will also want a look.

Pic begins with a withered Cox writing a memoir to pass the time while he waits for someone else with his rare blood type to die and donate his or her liver. With a frank, clear-eyed calm about his cancer, the Dutch-raised septuagenarian helmer cuts a dignified figure as he reflects on his past and his impending death. Tracking his subject’s visits to a Melbourne hospital for treatment over several months, Bradbury unobtrusively augments the medical waiting game with celebratory interviews.

Loyal thesps and regular players, including Wendy Hughes, Chris Haywood and longtime muse Gosia Dobrowolska, all marvel at the collision of order and chaos that characterizes Cox’s shoots. Recollections focus more on the man rather than on his work, though high-quality productions from the director’s 1980s heyday, including searing film a clef “My First Wife,” are prominent. An appetizing array of clips nails the emotional intensity, trippy experimentation and austere beauty of Cox’s capital-A arthouse features.

Docu gets beyond pure hagiography with affectionate glimpses of Cox’s cantankerous side. The gist of the auteur’s personality is summed up by his onetime producer Philip Adams (“Lonely Hearts”), who recalls that the director spoke of “integrity” as if he was the only person who had it.

Cox’s sole big-budget film, “Molokai,” featuring David Wenham (who narrates the docu) alongside Peter O’Toole and Kris Kristofferson, is dismissed as a debacle ruined by philistine producers. But the docu also uncovers the director’s hypersensitivity to criticism; longtime Cox supporter and former Variety critic David Stratton relates the fiery response he got after filing a negative review of “Salvation,” while thesp Aden Young (who edited “Salvation”) laughs about being physically attacked by Cox when the two had a disagreement while working on 1994’s “Exile.”

Bradbury’s contemplative views of Cox’s Melbourne milieu capture the city’s gritty appeal and successfully mimic the helmer’s Euro-styled eye. A 60-minute tube version is ready for Oz broadcast, but the pleasurable 87-minute length already seems too short.

On Borrowed Time

Australia

Production

A Screen Australia, Screen New South Wales presentation of a Frontline Films production, in association with Australian Broadcasting Corp. (International sales: Frontline Films, Wilsons Creek.) Produced by David Bradbury. Executive producer, Jeni McMahon. Directed by David Bradbury. Written by Bradbury, Mike Rubbo.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Bradbury; editors, Lindi Harrison, Andrew Arestides; music, David Lewis; art director, Allan Moore; sound, Bradbury. Reviewed at Cinema 1, Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, Nov. 23, 2011. In Brisbane Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Paul Cox, David Wenham, Gosia Dobrowolska, Philip Adams, Bob Ellis, Julia Blake, Terry Norris, Tony Llewllyn-Jones, David Stratton, John Clarke, Chris Haywood, Aden Young, Wendy Hughes, Bob Jones. Narrator: David Wenham.

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