This conceptually bold satirical comedy-drama from first-time Aussie writer-director Peter Duncan spans 45 years of recent history and contains enough humor and pathos, plus a sock performance by Judy Davis, to keep audiences around the world entranced. With careful handling, Miramax should score strongly in urban areas with this Oz import, while on home turf Roadshow Distributors should have a solid performer. Pic proved a popular choice as opener to the 1996 Melbourne fest.
Brimming with almost too many ideas for its 99-minute running time, Duncan’s film boasts a strong cast of top actors who flesh out a group of bizarre yet recognizable characters involved in the political scene from the ’50s to the present day. Yet underlying the humor there’s plenty of quite savage irony; Billy Wilder might enjoy this one.
Pic starts out as a kind of mock documentary, with “prominent” people addressing an unseen interviewer. It seems that 1990s Australia is in political turmoil and the government blames one man — Joseph Welch (Richard Roxburgh), who, in turn, blames his mother.
From this bright curtain-raiser, the film flashes back to 1951, when conservative Prime Minister Menzies attempted toban the Australian Communist Party but was forced to call a referendum to allow the public to decide the issue. Joan Fraser (Davis), a committed Communist, leads a small and insignificant group of party members who meet regularly in a pub. One of her group is Zachary Welch (Geoffrey Rush), who attends only because he loves the feisty Joan. Joan has taught herself Russian, and writes regularly to Stalin in Moscow, though she never gets a reply.
But when the government’s referendum is narrowly defeated (events also depicted in Phillip Noyce’s first feature, “Newsfront”), Stalin, amusingly played by F. Murray Abraham, starts to take Australia more seriously and comes across Joan’s file of letters. Joan receives an invitation to come to Moscow and attend a congress.
Looking great in a fetching red dress, she meets Stalin for a swank dinner and soon finds herself in the Russian leader’s bed. But the adventure is all too much for Stalin, who expires (offscreen) in the Australian woman’s arms. Joan returns to Sydney pregnant, marries the loyal Welch and eventually gives birth to a son, Joseph.
This is only the starting point. Rest of the film follows the fortunes of Joan and her son, who accompanies her to many a political rally over the years and even gets a taste for prison cells — so much so that, as a grown man, he falls in love with Anna (Rachel Griffiths), a mounted policewoman who looks great in leather and who has a mean set of handcuffs. Joseph’s eventual entry into the Australian political scene is full of sardonic humor.
Also involved in the lives of these raffish characters is David Hoyle (Sam Neill), a mysterious spy who works for both the Australian and Russian secret services. This double agent, who also has an affair with Joan while she’s in Moscow, continues to play a key role in the story.
All of this is, for the most part, lots of fun. Duncan displays a sure comic touch, and it’s only when the film gets more serious in the latter stages that it loses a little of its charm. The tone isn’t always consistent, with the documentary format of the early scenes soon abandoned, but overall the mixture of broad comedy (Stalin singing “I Get a Kick Out of You” as a prelude to seduction is a highlight) and satire works extremely well.
Davis gives a typically strong performance as the dedicated Joan, and ages convincingly. There’s a touching scene late in the pic as she sees her lifetime’s ideals shattered while watching on TV the changes brought about in the Gorbachev era. Neill brings plenty of charisma to his rather enigmatic character, Rush is excellent as Joan’s loyal, put-upon husband, Roxburgh is acidly amusing, and Griffiths further consolidates her position as a top young Aussie actress.
All tech credits are of the highest order, notably Roger Ford’s clever production design, Martin McGrath’s glowing camerawork and Nigel Westlake’s fine music score. Editor Simon Martin has done a highly efficient job, giving the film shape and momentum and keeping the running time tight, given rumors of a far lengthier early version.