20 July 2005 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

SYDNEY -- For his second feature, director Rowan Woods again proves himself a master at creating a strong mood. Despite echoes of the bleak territory visited in his debut feature The Boys, a grim dissection of the violence in Australia's underclass, Little Fish manages moments of great beauty thanks in no small measure to the presence of lead actress Cate Blanchett in her first Australian role since 1997's Oscar and Lucinda.

After a series of high-profile international roles including her Oscar-winning turn in The Aviator, Little Fish sees Blanchett shake off her fondness for period pieces and do something rare: play her age and speak with her own accent. Despite dark themes of crime, moral compromise and drug addiction, this midbudget Australian film from a fine indie team should benefit from Blanchett's presence and see solid boxoffice interest on the international art house circuit. The film will be released in Australia on Sept. 8.

Little Fish is set in Sydney's multicultural southwest, an area rife with drug addiction and organized crime. Woods' talent lies in investing s unlikable characters with a huge well of heart and soul. Tracy Heart (Blanchett) is doing it tough. She's kicked a serious drug habit, but the dark, tenuous world of addiction is all around her.

The streets are littered with junkies: Her own brother, troubled amputee Ray (Martin Henderson from "Bride & Prejudice"), is caught up in the drug trade; her weakened father figure (Hugo Weaving from the Matrix and Lord of the Rings films) is bent in a web of heroin abuse; and ex-boyfriend Johnny (Dustin Nguyen) has returned after four years in Canada. Trying to start a new life, Tracy soon finds that the past is about to catch up with her.

This is a tough film grounded in authenticity with the feel of Ken Loach's realist British cinema. Genre conventions are in place -- drug deals, murder, criminals -- yet Little Fish is a character study. Screenwriter Jacquelin Perske skillfully steers the narrative into the interconnected stories of those around Blanchett's Tracy.

Family is at the core of the film. As Tracy becomes increasingly desperate, she's pulled apart by two disparate but related forces. Her brother's illicit drug deals claw her back into the old life, while her mother (a wonderfully crackling turn from veteran actress Noni Hazlehurst) works to keep Tracy on the straight and narrow. This clash provides the film's central dynamic from which the characters' flaws are explored.

Little Fish has a grimy authenticity. Homes feel rigorously lived in, and the costume design is scrubbed clean of even the remotest sense of glamour. Thankfully, none of this stops Woods from taking visual flights of fancy. Danny Ruhlmann's cinematography adds an almost surreal gleam, swirling and tilting as it conveys Tracy's inner conflict. Similarly, the strong presence of the haunting score by Nathan Larson (Boys Don't Cry, The Woodsman) gently tugs the film away from a purely realist approach.

Blanchett is loose, natural and wholly believable as Tracy, a character she imbues with a kind of bruised tenderness. Weaving's hopeless junkie is a brave turn from an always-brave actor: He's physically transformed, rail-thin with a nasty goatee beard and hurtles through a bundle of different emotions as a sly seducer one moment, a desperate wreck the next.

Confrontational, raw and always compelling, Little Fish is a film of rare power and conviction.

LITTLE FISH

Icon Films (Australia)

Film Finance Corporation Australia presents

A Porchlight Films production in association with Mullis Capital Independent, the New South Wales Film and Television Office, Myriad Pictures and Dirty Films

Credits:

Director: Rowan Woods

Screenwriter: Jacquelin Perske

Producers: Vincent Sheehan, Liz Watts, Richard Keddie

Executive producers: Robert Mullis, Barrie M. Osborne, Kirk D'Amico, Marion Pilowsky

Director of photography: Danny Ruhlmann

Production designer: Luigi Pittorino

Costumes: Melinda Doring

Music: Nathan Larson

Editors: Alexandre De Franceschi, John Scott

Cast:

Tracy Heart: Cate Blanchett

Lionel Dawson: Hugo Weaving

Brad Thompson: Sam Neill

Ray Heart: Martin Henderson

Janelle Heart: Noni Hazlehurst

Johnny: Dustin Nguyen

No MPAA rating

Running time -- 114 minutes


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