Fred Schepisi returns to Australian filmmaking with an ambitious stab at adapting “The Eye of the Storm,” but technical deficiencies and an ill-structured script fail to do justice to Patrick White’s densely textured novel. As siblings trying to stitch up their financial legacy, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis bookend a cast consisting of some of Oz’s finest thesps, but Schepisi never gets a grip on a script with awkward literary tics. Pic may draw admiration from what’s left of Merchant-Ivory’s fanbase but will otherwise leave the domestic B.O. cold. International response looks chillier still, though fest play is likely.
Widely admired but rarely read, the detailed prose of Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature has long proved too daunting for Oz cinema; with the exception of Jim Sharman’s 1978 short-story adaptation “The Night the Prowler,” no other White-inspired films have been made. The shortcomings of “The Eye of the Storm,” Schepisi’s first Australian film since his 1988 classic “A Cry in the Dark” (aka “Evil Angels”), are likely to scare Oz filmmakers off White for a longer time to come.
Pic begins with a flashback, as still-alluring sixtysomething Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) wades alone on a tropical beach with a mysterious, bloody injury on her forehead. A voiceover by her London-dwelling actor son, Sir Basil Hunter (Geoffrey Rush), offers a grand statement about his mother’s decision to choose her own time of death. Accordingly, the story leaps forward 20 years to 1972 Sydney, with Elizabeth on her luxurious deathbed, attended by loyal servants who hope their meal ticket lingers on.
With the end nigh, Basil and his Europe-roaming sister, Princess de Lascabanes, aka Dorothy (Judy Davis), have returned to Australia from their respective exiles to pay their last respects and hopefully shore up a substantial inheritance. The prodigal children find their mother as difficult in her final hours as she was in good health, and their problems are compounded by the shock of the familiar pretensions and vulgarities of Australian society that drove them from the Antipodes in the first place.
Script by Judy Morris (an Australian thesp who co-wrote George Miller’s “Happy Feet”) manages to cram in the overall arc of White’s novel, and neatly encapsulates its themes in an emotional coda. But the film’s unwavering respect for its source material is less successfully manifested in its multiple subplots; characters often appear for no reason at all, their backstories traced in unsatisfyingly skeletal outlines. Too many scenes play like disjointed fragments extracted from the novel and inelegantly stitched together.
Schepisi’s helming seems erratic, possibly due to budgetary constraints that didn’t allow for sufficient coverage. Direction is at times overly purposeful, with a fetish for overhead shots limned with portentous meaning; likewise, the narrative often halts to take in details of significant everyday actions that seem to be lifted directly from White’s minutiae-filled prose. And while the helmer’s splendid use of closeups achieves a beautiful and intimate intensity, the lensing of his longtime collaborator Ian Baker has a lifeless quality that undermines the film; expansive Edwardian interiors are poorly lit, creating the impression of hastily constructed stages for a grandiose soap series.
Thesping by Rush and Davis (both among the film’s numerous exec producers) is superb. Both actors are able to make their sardonic dialogue sing, their subtle facial expressions allowing glimpses into their character’s deep, unresolved pain. Supporting cast is fine on the whole, but the standout is the helmer’s daughter Alexandra Schepisi, in a terrific turn as Elizabeth’s bawdy nurse, Flora. Rampling handles her contempo near-death scenes and her tropical-island flashbacks with detached aplomb.
In those flashbacks, which reveal the crux of the conflict between mother and daughter, jazzy music led by saxophonist Branford Marsalis accurately suggests emotional turbulence. But it feels out of kilter with the rest of the film, during which Paul Grabowsky’s twee score serves mostly to cover embarrassing silences.