Sometimes a film just can’t live up to all its reputations. Take the Australian offering, The Eye of the Storm, which has a top-drawer pedigree from director, Fred Schepisi ( Six Degrees of Separation, A Cry in the Dark), adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, and with a cast including Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis.
For all the talent involved, The Eye of the Storm is an incident-stuffed but lacklustre affair – a case of lots of sturm, but not enough drang – that reaches for a satiric sting and emotional depth it never achieves. Adapted by Judy Morris ( Happy Feet) from White’s 1973 novel, the story offers a Down Under update on King Lear. Wealthy widow Elizabeth Hunter prepares for her death in a mansion in suburban Sydney. Her two offspring return from foreign shores to be by their mother’s side.
Elizabeth, bewigged and made up by her staff like some ancient monarch, maintains a weak illusion of her previous glamour. She lives in an Edwardian home, cared for by a staff that includes one lusty young nurse, Flora (the director’s daughter, Alexandra Schepisi), the devout and devoted Sister Mary (Maria Theodorakis) and the cook, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, Lotte (Helen Morse), who is required to perform bizarre Weimar cabaret tunes for her employer. Also on hand is Elizabeth’s stoical life-long solicitor, Arnold Wyburd (John Gaden) who must get the final version of her oft-changing will.
The adult children, who arrive from England and France, are most concerned about cutting costs and possibly sweeping mummy off to a nursing home before she can spend the rest of the fortune. First to arrive is the awkward, emotionally twisted Dorothy (Davis), insolvent, but thanks to a failed marriage to minor French nobility, carrying the title of Princess of Lascabanes. Dorothy is fretful and desperate for attention; Elizabeth is cool and scathing.
Next comes mummy’s darling, Sir Basil (Rush), a struggling actor-playwright returning from London, also looking for some financial help, and with the nurse Flora, some local diversion. (Since Rush is only five years Rampling’s junior, and Davis nine years younger, significant suspension of disbelief and prosthetic aids are required.)
Though the performances are the obvious draw here, they’re just not enough to sell these characters. Rampling’s grande dame turn is fine in a superficial way – the close-ups on the severe, sensual mask of a face is unfailingly intriguing – but without much access to her interior life, her brittle self-centredness grows tiresome. Rush, as her foppish, womanizing son, is consistently over the top, and even the great Judy Davis’s familiar neurotic electricity seems diffused here in a character trapped in petulant adolescence.
The weakest element in Morris’s adaptation are the flashback sequences, in Elizabeth’s “morphine moment” when she returns to a period, some 20 years before, when, after stealing her daughter’s potential beau, she experienced a spiritual epiphany at the centre of a storm on an island resort. In cross-cut scenes, on a trip to the family’s country home, Basil and Dorothy also achieve some reconciliation with their past. Though White’s themes are clear enough, the adaptation feels either amused or dubiously approving of these unpleasant characters. Think of it as a museum piece of bad behaviour or a Merchant-Ivory film for misanthropes.
The Eye of the Storm
- Directed by Fred Schepisi
- Written by Judy Morris
- Starring Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis
- Classification: 14A