A supremely disturbing and perplexing Australian crime from 1997 gets splashed onto the big-screen in “Joe Cinque’s Consolation.” The promising first feature by helmer and co-writer Sotiris Dounoukos methodically details how Canberra law student Anu Singh sedated then deliberately administered a fatal dose of heroin to boyfriend Joe Cinque while friends aware of her deadly plan failed to intervene. Driven by an impressive performance in her feature debut by Maggie Naouri as the damaged and dangerously manipulative Singh, “Joe Cinque’s Consolation” offers a moody and compelling study of the facts while leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions to the burning question of why people would act like this. A solid fest run and strong international sales on small-screen formats looks likely. Australian theatrical release is scheduled for late 2016.
The source material is a 2004 nonfiction novel in which acclaimed author Helen Garner, who attended Singh’s 1999 trial, expressed a view shared by many Australians that justice may not have been properly served by Singh’s conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. But the film doesn’t portray Garner, and in fact omits all courtroom proceedings, leaving the emphasis squarely on events leading up to Cinque’s death.
Jerome Meyer is excellent as Joe, a kindhearted and thoroughly decent young engineering student who falls instantly and heavily for Anu after meeting her at a pub in 1994. In the film’s early passages it’s possible to afford Anu a degree of sympathy as signs of her neuroses and symptoms of body dysmorphia start to emerge. Such feelings dissipate quickly when the story bounces ahead to 1997. By now Anu is falling badly behind at the university, blaming her tolerant and loving boyfriend for all her problems, and entertaining thoughts of taking her own life.
The screenplay by Dounoukos (who attended the same law school at the same time as Singh) and co-writer Matt Rubinstein carefully balances Joe’s unwavering devotion to his increasingly unstable girlfriend with the twisted friendship Anu forms with fellow law student Madhavi Rao (Sacha Joseph). A cold-hearted doormat who believes Anu’s every improbable utterance without question, Madhavi becomes a frighteningly willing accomplice in plans so bizarre they could only be true.
At first this involves telling friends that Singh is terminally ill and inviting them to a farewell dinner party. With the unaware Joe sedated, Anu will then commit suicide. After failing to carry out her plan she orders Madhavi to stage a second gathering and inform everyone it’s the prelude to her suicide pact with Joe.
The film starkly presents the dereliction of responsibility by those with inside knowledge of the plan. Discussing suicide and murder as if they were abstract intellectual concepts or simply a form of entertainment, associates including weak-willed Len (Jackson Tozer), heroin addict Bronwyn (Eva Lazzaro) and insecure dropout Tanya (Laura Gordon) simply do nothing. In particularly chilling scenes, Anu easily acquires the fatal heroin dose by stating her intentions clearly to Saul (Jacob Collins-Levy), a smarmy law school student who casually sells narcotics while watering the garden of his large suburban home.
Well performed by a cast comprised of many little-known young actors, the film also features brief and memorable contributions by Gia Carides and Nino Nokolakopoulos as Cinque’s loving parents, Maria and Nino.
Cinematographer Simon Chapman (“The Loved Ones”, 2009) contrasts his warm lensing of intimate scenes with deliberately plain imagery of Canberra’s flat and uninteresting suburban landscape. Antonio Gambale’s fine score slides nicely from bouncy rhythms in early, happy times to brooding soundscapes as Singh’s monstrous plan takes shape. All other tech work is solid.