A trio of fine performances, and virile direction from Polish director Jerzy Domaradzki (making his second Australian film, after “Struck by Lightning”), overcome an occasionally tentative screenplay to make “Lilian’s Story” a touching saga of an eccentric but tenacious woman who’s haunted by demons from her troubled past. Though unquestionably optimistic and life-affirming (“Everything matters” is the principal theme), this exploration of a woman rejected by family and society could well be a tough sell. Positive word of mouth could move pic beyond arthouses. It’s getting its initial international exposure in the Berlin and AFM marts.
Quite coincidentally, there are distinct parallels between Domaradzki’s film and “Shine,” the Oz pic that caused something of a stir at Sundance. Both pics are inspired by real-life characters driven mad by aggressive, possessive fathers, both protagonists spend considerable time in mental institutions, and in both films different actors play the central role at different stages in the life of the central character. The protagonist of “Shine” is more immediately engaging than that of “Lilian,” however, which places this film at something of a disadvantage, despite its many merits.
Steve Wright’s screenplay (his first) lacks sharp focus in its attempt to create a vivid character of the disaffected Lilian Singer, who has been incarcerated in a mental institution for 40 years of her life, placed there by her perversely evil father. Wright depicts Lilian’s first frightening, uncertain days of liberty, flashing back to her youth and the events that led to her being shut away for most of her life.
Veteran Aussie actor Ruth Cracknell gives a forceful performance as the present-day Lilian, while Toni Collette, of “Muriel’s Wedding” fame, is poignant as the young Lilian whose life is about to be shattered. Both women have meaty roles, but they’re almost overshadowed by Barry Otto’s great turn as both Lilian’s unspeakable father and, in the present, her wimpy brother.
Kate Grenville’s 1984 novel was a thinly fictionalized account of the life of a well-known Sydney eccentric, Bea Miles, who used to cadge taxi rides and offer recitations of Shakespeare in lieu of payment. Pic begins with Lilian’s last day of incarceration; she’s taken from the secluded world in which she’s lived most of her life and placed in a shabby hotel room in the heart of the city’s red-light district. Here she befriends a gaggle of prosties, led by simpatico Zara (Essie Davis), and follows around a stuffy bank manager she thinks she loves, until he has the police take her away.
Soon after, she meets Frank (John Flaus), a taxi driver who turns out to be the man she’d loved and lost as a girl. Sadly, Frank is now a hopeless, terminally ill alcoholic, and unable to give Lilian the love and companionship she so desperately needs. Lilian also becomes a surrogate mother to Jewel (Susie Lindeman), a religious freak she met in the asylum; Jewel is now pregnant, and believes she’ll be the mother of a new God.
Meanwhile, flashbacks depict the high-spirited, highly strung Lilian’s adolescence; gradually, the extent of the disciplinarian father’s crimes against his daughter are revealed.
Whether Lilian is buttonholing passers-by with quotes from her so-called friend, William (Shakespeare, that is), or battling with the police, magistrates and other authority figures, Cracknell gives a full-blooded, gutsy performance. Collette has less material to work with until the powerful climax of the flashback segments, when she displays new range and depth. Otto, as noted, almost steals the film. Flaus is touching as the hopeless Frank.
Ace Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak gives the film, and the city of Sydney, a Euro look, and uses yellow filters (as he did for Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing”) for the flashbacks; in his inventive hands, pic is visually rich. Cezary Skubiszewski’s music score is a major plus.
With careful handling, “Lilian’s Story,” despite its heavyweight themes, could score in specialized venues. In Oz, it goes into release May 9, well ahead of “Shine.”