“Sirens,” the latest Miramax pickup from the Antipodes, is a deliciously sexy and hedonistic comedy of morals and manners, filmed amid some of Australia’s most spectacular scenery. The blend of eroticism and humor, plus the formidable presence of supermodel Elle Macpherson, who is seen regularly in the buff in her featured role as an artist’s model, will ensure wide interest in this engaging yarn from writer/director John Duigan.
Though the story here is fictional, it’s based on real characters and situations. Sam Neill plays Norman Lindsay, a celebrated and controversial Australian painter, sculptor, cartoonist, novelist and writer of children’s books (notably the much-loved “The Magic Pudding”) who died in 1969.
Lindsay’s lifelong penchant for featuring voluptuous nude women in his work occasionally got him into hot water. In the early 1930s, when “Sirens” is set, he became embroiled in a controversy over an etching, “The Crucified Venus,” which depicted a naked beauty on the cross. (Michael Powell’s 1968 film “Age of Consent” was based on a Lindsay book about a painter and his model.)
In Duigan’s story, the Anglican Bishop of Sydney (Vincent Ball) is determined to have the etching removed from an art exhibition and instructs Rev. Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) to journey to Lindsay’s home in the Blue Mountains to convince him the painting must be taken down.
Campion, who considers himself a bit of a free thinker, and his naive young wife, Estella (Tara Fitzgerald), arrive to find the unrepentant artist living with his wife/model, Rose (Pamela Rabe), and three models.
Sheela (Macpherson) and Pru (Kate Fischer) enjoy their frequent nudity, while the shyer Giddy (Portia de Rossi) refuses to disrobe for a painting, “Sirens,” on which Lindsay is working.
The pompous, patronizing English couple are at first mildly scandalized, but gradually Estella becomes drawn to the liberated lifestyle of the other women.
She befriends the virginal Giddy and, like her, is attracted to Lindsay’s male model, a supposedly blind Adonis (Mark Gerber) whose nakedness Estella finds exciting.
Though the film lacks a strong dramatic line, its comic clashes between conservatism and Bohemianism in these lush surroundings are beautifully observed.
Grant, in a role not unlike the one he played in Roman Polanski’s “Bitter Moon,” is very funny as the upper-crust Englishman who isn’t nearly as enlightened as he thinks he is. Fitzgerald manages the shift from shy to bold with class.
Macpherson, who added some weight to play the role of Sheela (Lindsay’s models were distinctly Rubenesque), is funny and saucy, and she and Fischer are stunningly beautiful. De Rossi is lovely as the shy girl and Rabe, as Lindsay’s knowing wife, is tart and amusing.
Somewhat less satisfying is Neill’s Lindsay, not through any fault of the actor, but because the role is surprisingly underwritten: Lindsay, who should have been a central character, is too often shunted to the sidelines.
Duigan injects plenty of humor into this sensual saga, and particularly has fun with Australia’s fauna and with the way the local mountain folk behave toward the outrageous Lindsays and their house guests.
After “Flirting” and “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Duigan must now lay claim to be the reigning sensualist of the Australian cinema and in this context, his cameo performance as an earnest village minister, who delivers a pompous sermon, is deliciously funny.
Cinematographer Geoff Burton does a magnificent job in capturing the texture of the place and the time; the film should be a big tourist boost for the Blue Mountain area.
Using Lindsay’s old home, now an art gallery, for exteriors, Roger Ford’s production design convincingly creates the period settings. Rachel Portman’s music is delightful, and Humphrey Dixon’s editing couldn’t have been sharper.
Though totally different in style and mood, “Sirens” echoes “The Piano” in its theme of female emancipation and sexual liberation. It may not score as highly as Jane Campion’s prize winner, but there are plenty of elements on which Miramax can pin an enticing campaign for this droll and sexy comedy.