The inner demons haunting four residents of an isolated valley are reflected by an unseen predator that is attacking livestock in James Bogle’s “In The Winter Dark.” A slowly paced but accomplished adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel, pic should scare up decent business in Australia thanks to a strong cast and eerily fine direction, and could also make a dent in international arthouses after further fest exposure. But it was a questionable decision to launch it as the Sydney Film Festival’s opening night attraction where the invited audience generally expects brisker, more upbeat fare.
Buffs will recognize a debt to William Wellman’s classic “Track of the Cat” in this strange story, which was filmed on the fringes of Australia’s spectacular Blue Mountains. Opening sequence, revealing the discovery of a woman’s body in a forest, establishes a mood of forbidding beauty, as the narrator, Maurice Stubbs (Ray Barrett), in classic film noir tradition, takes the viewer back into the recent past “to figure out how it could have been different.”
Maurice and Ida (Brenda Blethyn) have eked out a living on their dilapidated farm for 30 years. They have never recovered from the death of their baby son long ago; the boy, it seems, was smothered by a cat. In other parts of the valley live Laurie (Richard Roxburgh), a lonely outcast who spends his days wandering through the countryside and his nights listening to old Jim Reeves records, and Ronnie (Miranda Otto), a latter-day hippie, pregnant and abandoned by her lover.
This quartet is brought together by fear. Some creature is slaughtering livestock — first Ronnie’s ducks, then a kangaroo, then some of Maurice’s sheep. Is it an unusually large feral cat? Or a beast that escaped from the zoo many years ago and has been roaming wild ever since? Or is it something else again?
Director Bogle artfully establishes an eerie atmosphere of dread as he explores the themes of Winton’s intriguing tome. Martin McGrath’s outstandingcinematography goes a long way toward creating the necessary mysterious mood for what is essentially an interior, psychological thriller. Fine use of sound, plus apt music scoring by Peter Cobbin, enhance the creepy qualities of the material, and the occasional voiceover is creatively used.
Pic is basically a four-hander, and has been perfectly cast. Blethyn is moving as the isolated, still-grieving Ida. Veteran Barrett’s curmudgeonly Maurice represents some of his best screen work. Roxburgh’s playing of the thinly written role of Laurie succeeds triumphantly in fleshing out the character, while the immensely versatile Otto is exactly right as the spaced-out Ronnie.
Bogle’s handsomely produced film is completely successful in exploring a mysterious, threatening environment peopled by a quartet of seriously disturbed characters. Comparisons can be made to Samantha Lang’s 1997 “The Well,” a similarly bleak tale of psychological frissons, and those who were unable to tune into the Lang film will probably have similar problems with Bogle’s chiller.