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Patrick White put Australia on the literary map by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, but his rich dense style did not make for a best-selling author. This film, an adaptation of White's novel, marks the first time anyone has succeeded in filming a White novel, though he wrote the screenplay for a curious piece directed by Jim Sharman, "The Night the Prowler" in 1977. Director Fred Schepisi said at the preview I attended that it was a challenge to film the allegedly unfilmable; if it had been easy it would have not been worth doing. Yet despite the style White was rather a theatrical author, and Judy Morris's screenplay accurately reflects White's mordant wit. His characters are acting their way through life and there is drama in almost every scene.
Old Mrs Elizabeth Hunter, widow of a wealthy grazier, is nearing the end of her days in some splendour in her Centennial Park, Sydney, mansion, and her two children have been summoned to her bedside. Her son Basil, once a leading actor on the London stage whose career is now in decline and her daughter Dorothy, the ex-wife of a minor French aristocrat, are motivated more by their possible inheritance than affection for the old lady. In fact Elizabeth inspires more affection in her nurses, solicitor and housekeeper than she does in her children. Dorothy in particular has cause to hate her mother, yet it is she who gets closer to her as the film progresses.
Schepisi manages to blend in the dark humour of the situation with the downbeat storyline. The cinemaphotograhy is gorgeous and the cutting, often without the usual establishment shots, wonderfully done, given the extensive use made of flashbacks you instantly realise where the characters are. The book's interior monologues often appear as a single image in a single screen. The casting is such as Geoffrey Rush mentioned at the preview that he could not refuse the very best of the Australian acting profession, though the pivotal role of Elizabeth Hunter is played with great panache by Charlotte Rampling. Rush plays Basil as a man who takes himself seriously, but can't persuade anyone else to. Judy Davis simmers as the disillusioned Dorothy , and John Gaden as Wyburd the family solicitor with a skeleton or to in his own cupboard is pitch perfect. Flora the day nurse, played by Schepsi's daughter Alexandra, is vividly realised, and there are good performances in minor roles also, including Helen Morse, unrecognisable, as Lotte the tragic housekeeper, and Colin Friels as a Labor politician on the make rather reminiscent of one Robert James Lee Hawke. The only odd casting decision is casting Melbourne locations as Sydney. Mrs Hunter's mansion is definitely not in Sydney and only a couple of brief scenes are shot in Centennial Park.
It has been opined that "The Eye of the Storm" is Patrick White in drag, and it is true that there are some obvious personal aspects to the story - there is a lot of White's mother in Mrs Hunter. Set as it is in the early 1970s in the declining old money grazier milieu, this film could be written off as a period piece. Yet Schepisi has managed to capture both the theme and atmosphere of the novel. The difficulties of dying have rarely been so well depicted on film. This may not be a box office smash, but it will appeal to anyone who likes a solid piece of film-making.
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