With its interlocking nonlinear narratives and obliquely recurring characters, Australian author Tim Winton’s 2005 short-story collection “The Turning” is already something of an artistic tangram; brought to the screen by 18 different filmmakers who scatter its unifying literary voice to the winds, it’s even harder to parse. Commendably ambitious and clocking in at three hours, this unwieldy portmanteau pic boasts a handful of standout contributions — none more striking than the writing-directing debut of actress Mia Wasikowska — amid a surfeit of gauchely literal ones in a composite meditation on forgiveness, family, firearms and the persistence of memory. Nothing if not a conversation piece, speckled with such famous faces as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Rose Byrne, “The Turning” has been successfully marketed Down Under as a full-scale cultural event; away from home, it’s destined more for isolated repertory screenings, while its patchwork format is ideally suited to ancillary.
In a short space of time, Winton’s collection appears to have been integrated into the Australian cultural canon: Devoted to the rugged local landscape and awash with direct metaphor, it’s not necessarily high art, but offers ample scope for analysis in classroom and book-club contexts alike. A stage production followed in 2008; an eventual film adaptation was inevitable, with the book’s semi-novelistic structure lending itself perfectly to the manner of reorganized sprawl applied by Robert Altman to Raymond Carver in “Short Cuts” — still the gold standard for multiple-short-story adaptation.
The alternative approach that project supervisor Robert Connolly (who also directed one of the chapters) has taken is at once more unusual and less imaginative. Rather than meshing the narratives, “The Turning” presents each story in the collection as an individually produced short film, with a unique cast and creative team, all of them arranged in exactly the same sequence in which they appear in print. The film is so slavishly concerned with honoring the very letter of Winton’s book that it even bookends the proceedings with an animated interpretation of the poem (T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”) with which the author prefaced his work. It’s a tidy idea in theory, but it goes without saying that literary and cinematic structures are not interchangeable: The thematic and atmospheric accumulation of even the most tenuously linked short stories isn’t achieved in a film where the directorial authority changes every 10 minutes.
So disparate are the components of “The Turning” onscreen that uninformed viewers may well fail to grasp that nearly half the stories feature a single character, Vic Lang, whose sexual awakening, parental issues, rocky marriage and depression are played out at a range of ages by eight actors with little physical continuity between them. The remaining stories cover matters of an equivalent emotional hue, though there’s little agreement between the directors — which include internationally known Australian talents (Warwick Thornton, Justin Kurzel), moonlighting actors (David Wenham, the aforementioned Wasikowska) and local journeymen — as to the appropriate tonal tack.
The resulting grab-bag ranges from brittle domestic comedy to ethereal romanticism to earnest melodrama — though what many of them share is evident difficulty in translating Winton’s alternately mannered and plain-spoken prose to the screen. Thornton’s opening short, “Big World,” is among the most problematic in this regard: A fatalistic coming-of-age tale about two high-school leavers hitting the road sub-Kerouac-style, it foregoes dialogue for a running voiceover plucked straight from the page. It’s not until the sixth chapter — nearly an hour into the film — that the storytelling quite satisfies, in Ashlee Page’s modest but moving “On Her Knees,” a moral miniature detailing the adolescent Vic’s relationship with his proud domestic-worker mother.
From there on, the film rewards the patient, with the most compelling entries stacked in the back half. Simon Stone’s “Reunion” is distinguished by Blanchett’s and Richard Roxburgh’s droll, weathered performances as a suburban couple (the latter another incarnation of Vic) whose modest Christmas plans are disrupted by his mother’s impromptu decision to call on old friends; written by Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, it’s the anthology’s lightest chapter, but also among the more bittersweet. “The Snowtown Murders” director Kurzel’s “Boner McPharlin’s Moll” takes a fresh, documentary-style approach to the topic of community folklore, with an assembly of actors narrating conflicting urban legends about the titular small-town scamp over rich photographic imagery. Like Yaron Lifschitz’s penultimate chapter “Immunity,” which adventurously reimagines a minimal Winton vignette as as an exquisite modern dance routine, it seemingly belongs to a very different whole.
By far the wittiest and most formally exciting fragment, however, is Wasikowska’s “Long, Clear View,” which introduces the theme of Vic’s lifelong gun fascination in a hazy, languorous childhood interlude. Also scripted by the young actress (who does not appear onscreen), it strikes an arch comic tone distinct from Winton’s own writing, and certainly from the other 16 shorts. With a Super 8-textured visual playfulness that evokes, coincidentally or otherwise, the work of Richard Ayoade — who recently directed her in “The Double” — it’s enough to make viewers hungry for Wasikowska’s (hopefully forthcoming) debut feature.
For every such success, however, there are at least two other shorts that simply don’t gel, among them Connolly’s own entry, “Aquifer,” a turgid tale of lifelong guilt spurred by childish impulse. Most disappointing of all, perhaps, is Claire McCarthy’s title chapter, largely because it starts with promising empathy and authenticity in portraying the burgeoning friendship between two married women from opposite sides of the social divide. What follows is an abrupt, self-sabotaging lurch into wildly overcooked spiritual metaphor, squandering a superb, against-type performance from Rose Byrne in the process. It’s one of several entries guilty of taking Winton’s blunt imagery — which can work more subtly on the page — entirely too much at face value.
As you’d expect from such an enterprise, tech credits are a thoroughly mixed bag, with digital lensing yielding ambient, even Instagram-esque results in some entries, and harshly televisual ones in others. One feature common to most of the shorts, oddly enough, is treacly over-scoring, often using indigenous instrumentation — the clear exception, once again, being Wasikowska’s effort, scored instead to a classy blast of Shostakovich.