By Simon Miraudo
September 3, 2013
Anthology films are almost always made up of near-misses, prematurely aborted successes, and absolute abominations that are mercifully euthanised by the strict time-restrictions of the genre. The magical thing about Tim Winton’s The Turning is how consistently good it is. That it occasionally touches greatness makes it miraculous.
A portmanteau of seventeen shorts based on Tim Winton’s titular collection of tales from 2005, it features works from acclaimed Australian directors such as Warwick Thornton and Claire McCarthy alongside efforts from first-time helmers Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham (the latter being responsible for the finest segment). Though officially christened Tim Winton’s The Turning, perhaps Robert Connolly should have wedged his name into the title. After all, he’s the one responsible for corralling these directors like so many chickens into his cinematic coop. He even helms an elegiac vignette about a man's guilt over an accidental death: Aquifer. It's compelling. Pretty much all of them are.
Though every episode has its own flavour, different casts, and little in common, stylistically, with any other, nine of them revolve around the same characters: the troubled Vic Lang, his anxious wife Gail, ailing mother Carol, and estranged father Bob. The best come from this batch. The filmmakers aren't much concerned with keeping Vic's timeline consistent. His age and race fluctuates, none of his stories are presented in chronological order, and, in the penultimate passage, he's depicted in a wordless modern dance routine. It gives The Turning an 'ebb and flow' kind of feeling; matched by the tide of the ocean so often glimpsed in these coastal West Australian tales.
Among those highlights: Anthony Lucas' visually inventive Damaged Goods sees Gail (Libby Tanner) rummaging through Vic's high school memory box, uncovering his obsession with the port-wine stained Strawberry Alison (Taylor Ferguson). Ashlee Page’s On Her Knees is a tender tale of compassion and morality, and stars Susie Porter as Carol, a stubbornly ethical housekeeper unjustly fired from her job. Simon Stone’s Reunion showcases the stage talents of Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, and Robyn Nevin, who enjoy A Very Lang Christmas in three lengthy, single takes. Finally, there's Wenham’s sparse, evocative Commission, wherein Vic (Josh McConville) seeks out the alcoholic Bob (Hugo Weaving), who has exiled himself to the bush. Though he faces stern competition, Weaving steals the whole show with his thoughtful, contemplative, haunted performance.
The centrepiece, McCarthy’s eponymous The Turning, doesn't concern the Lang family at all. Coming halfway through proceedings, it stars Rose Byrne as Rae, a battered and bored woman who finds Christianity after befriending a pair of Born-Agains (Miranda Otto, Myles Pollard). Uncynical and non-judgmental, it captures with great poetry the moment of Rae's spiritual awakening; an epiphany crystallised during a vicious attack by her husband, Max (Matt Nable). Gorgeously photographed, and fearlessly acted by Byrne, it ends on the most ambiguous and challenging note of all the chapters. If I had to criticise Connolly’s otherwise fantastic job as curator, I wish he had programmed the intermission – oh, yes, there's an intermission – after it. Crowds would have been sent out of the cinema in a daze, charged with something to discuss and unpack in the foyer. As it stands, the audience leaves after two consecutive disappointments: Stephen Page’s abstract Sand and Shaun Gladwell’s undercooked Family (both, intriguingly, spotlight the brutal Max).
We return to the second act with Wasikowska’s comic, whimsical, and then suddenly terrifying Long, Clear View; only one of two instalments to lean on Winton’s prose for narration (the other is Thornton’s show-opener Big World). I was surprised to find this not used as a crutch more often; after all, it’s Winton’s words that brought us here. As a fellow sandgroper, I’m plenty familiar with his works. Apparently, to not teach them in Western Australian high schools is a crime punishable by imprisonment in our bell-tower. (Local humour!) Often long-winded, his pieces can be tiresome reads. But the worlds he builds are rich and the varied interpretations they inspire are a testament to that.
Tim Winton’s The Turning requires a big investment from viewers. Not all entries will resonate, and some will flat out frustrate and challenge. Nonetheless, this is indeed a special event: an unprecedented gathering of homegrown talent, both on screen and behind the camera. Enough amuse, many astound, and all intrigue. They succeed in holding you within their story; tricking you into thinking for their brief runtime that you’re actually watching a feature-length picture. When a segment abruptly cuts to black, part of you wishes we weren’t moving on, even though the promise of something better lies ahead. Yet, each still feels whole. That’s a success.
Tim Winton's The Turning arrives in Australian cinemas September 26, 2013.