Starring Sam Neill, Rachel Blake, Joel Tobeck, Robyn Malcolm, Madeleine Sami.
“An intense romance, unpredictable and disturbing to the end.”
This is a strange movie. Set on an island off the remote South West Coast of New Zealand and featuring the wildly beautiful coastline, with its breaker-tumbled rocky shore, deserted beaches and bush as well as the considerable talents of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Piano,, and Evil Angels aka A Cry in the Dark) and Rachael Blake (Lantana), it is intense, unpredictable and disturbing to the end.
From the opening credits where a black screen is punctuated by the dramatic accompaniment of a repeated strange thumping and human gasping and sniffing suddenly to reveal Melanie (Rachael Blake) chopping onions in the kitchen of a fish and chips shop, this movie sets out to chop all our presumptions and expectations out from beneath us. From the banter here with her co-workers and in the crowded live-music pub where she and her friends go after work we learn that she has had a brief, unsatisfactory encounter with Bill (Joel Tobeck), and is actively looking for a partner. When she meets a fellow from the bush, she tells him: “I hate the bush. People never come out of the bush. You can’t escape into it, you can’t understand it.”
Shortly afterwards she meets The Man (Sam Neill) and the chemistry between them is instantly warm and full of possibilities. “Your place,” she says, “I’ve seen mine.” He takes her by boat to a bush shack on an island he calls his ‘castle’.
Under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol and women’s magazine quizzes, there are various clues which she doesn’t pick up at first that the Man is not the fantasy lover she has been looking for but something altogether more unsettling and threatening. The next morning, she wakes in the dark, closed space below deck of the boat to her first alarming awareness of his unwelcome strangeness.
The music accompanying this movie is a potent presence. Neil Finn’s beautifully apt “You’re not the girl you think you are” plays twice and appropriately it is the aria Un Bel Di from another tragic love story, Madame Butterfly, that the Man plays while she soaks in the bath in a candlelit bathroom. Under the apparent normality of stuffing a freshly killed chicken for their dinner, he chillingly bundles her clothes into the wood-fired stove.
Progressively Melanie discovers that the Man lives in a perfect fantasy that rejects her reality with violence and though she makes several attempts to escape, the seduction of his obsessive madness proves irresistible. Various shocking events transpire. Melanie becomes unhinged under the brooding influence of the enclosing bush and their utter isolation which, as she feared, does not allow any escape. When the Man tells her at one point that his eyes are closed so he can see her better, it’s a charming poetic thought that soon become a lifeline for her as she succumbs to a fantasy that segues into his.
The various shifts and about-faces Melanie experiences seem like plot-holes which can only really be understood in terms of the unrelentingly oppressive presence of the bush and wild sea-shore that surrounds her. With all her fragile, familiar supports gone, her state of mind travels the path of least resistance to the transference of the Stockholm syndrome that bears more than a passing resemblance to the madness of falling in love.
Cinematographer Alun Bollinger, who worked with Peter Jackson on Lord of the Rings and Heavenly Creatures and Jane Campion on The Piano, and Film Editor John Gilbert (also Lord of the Rings) create a powerful visual impact where nature is a living, dangerous force. Several scenes stay in the mind. The boat negotiating the wild white water of the narrow entry channel, the flash of lightning behind the Man as he stands in the doorway, Melanie pushing the laden wheelbarrow against the chilling wind on the beach, a body half buried in the sand in the pre-dawn half-light.
When Bill unexpectedly appears on the island there are even more dramatic surprises and complete turn-arounds. There is a surreal sense that the characters are not in this scenario, that the plot story has been imposed on them and while this is may be intended to underline the flips between fantasy-led madness and reality it is at times problematic for the credibility of the character arcs.
Nevertheless, the acting is faultless. Sam Neill’s Man is a complex romantic, at once fragile and violent. His warmth alone would believably melt the most fearful heart. Rachael Blake as Melanie displays a wide-ranging ability from extreme terror and rage to the subtle melting of a woman in love. Joel Tobeck as Bill gives a performance of solid, practical commonsense tinged with wishful thinking that allows him to become part, in some sense, of Melanie’s fairy-tale.
Framed by ‘normal’ civilisation at the beginning and the end, the greater part of the movie centres around just Melanie and the Man on their isolated island. When Melanie returns briefly to her friends she is an utterly different person. The ending is bizarre, a confection of desire-based fantasies and illusions, some of them pathological, which leave us chilled and fearing for the unwitting and the innocent who believe they are in a sane world, yet living with perfect strangers.
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