A group of conflicted men, prisoners and inmates discover the majesty of great birds — and through them, the cleansing power of redemption — in the deeply felt outdoor drama “Healing.” The first film in a decade from director and co-writer Craig Monahan, whose 1998 psychological thriller “The Interview” remains an uncommonly smart genre piece, this equally intelligent and satisfying item will prove therapeutic to distribs on the hunt for quality fare.
The film is inspired by the formation of the real-life alliance between the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary in the outback, northwest of Melbourne, and the state-run penal system Prisons Victoria. This partnership took the form of the Raptor Rehabilitation Program, in which inmates transitioning from lockup to life cared for wounded eagles and other big birds in a minimum-security prison farm that looks like nothing so much as a country motel.
Into this facility comes Viktor Khadem (Don Hany, extraordinary), who, after 18 years behind bars for murder, has little understanding of the contemporary world and nothing to look forward to from his long-estranged Iranian family. Viktor is assigned to Matt Perry (Hugo Weaving), a committed officer with a fondness for rescuing Raptors and, like Viktor, weighty past issues of his own. On the suggestion of Healesville bird specialist Glynis (Jane Menelaus), Matt rams the rehabilitation program past his skeptical superiors and installs Viktor as supervisor.
Additional complications arise in the backstories and frictions of fellow inmates Paul (Xavier Samuel, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”), Shane (Mark Leonard Winter) and swaggering prison fixer Warren (Anthony Hayes). The agent of their change is the care and feeding of their charges, principal among them the magisterial wedge-tailed eagle Jasmine, through whose rehabilitation each man comes to his own peace in his own way.
It’s refreshing to see a film that takes its own sweet time building characters and the subtle conflicts simmering among them. Led by the familiar and bankable Weaving, the cast, under Monahan’s sure guidance, deftly underplays what could have been, in other hands, an awkward melodrama.
Ace d.p. Andrew Lesnie’s immaculate widescreen photography is the next best thing to being in the bush at the magic hour, while longtime Monahan associate Suresh Ayyar’s intuitive editing reinforces the slowed-down pace of country life. Monahan cites bird handler Andrew Payne as “the unsung hero of our film,” evidenced in the way each eagle, owl and falcon develops its own personality.