Melbourne 2013 Review: THE TURNING Mines Deep Australiana, Unearths Some Gems

Curator, producer and director Robert Connolly knows how to convey a good story. He has been intimately involved with some great Australian productions over the years; from Balibo to These Final Hours. He has the skills necessary to bring together an extremely ambitious project spanning 17 rising and accomplished directors, each covering a chapter in celebrated author Tim Winton's epic novel The Turning

The Turning as a book is a sprawling, diverse account of the life and times of individuals and families in Western Australia. The writing style differs substantially and some chapters are much more engaging and memorable than others. Some carry a huge weight that seeps through the pages while others are throw-away larks. Regardless, Winton keeps the tone intact throughout and the themes evident. Connolly, assisted by producer Maggie Miles, has also successfully done this with the film.

The film tells each chapter in original order, only this time each director has profoundly interpreted Winton's words by imbuing their own vision and recollection. The result is an interesting mixed bag. Some stories that are deadly serious come off as whimsical and light-hearted and vice versa. 
For the most part, the savage, brutal and rough nature of the book is downplayed and the conflict in the book is also negated in a lot of the stories.

I only disliked three of the 17 shorts in this compendium. For an adapted anthology this is an impressive figure. The mere retention of tone makes this anthology a cut above most. The tools each filmmaker employs very impressively, although some are over-utilized. Ephemeral music sometimes detracts from the weight of a scene, or betrays the lightness of a scene; some music simply does not match the image.

Some stories are wordless; others are a by-the-numbers wordy drama. Some stories use film techniques and framing in unique ways and these are the best surprises. Almost every story weaves the past and present perfectly, capturing the ennui and trauma these fractured figures feel. 
The disparity of time, place and space is resplendent. The cinematography is stunning in every short, particularly Shaun Gladwell's "Family" which has some of the best underwater shots I have ever seen.

It would be remiss of me not to mention perhaps the best short story I have ever read. The adaptation of "Small Mercies" is not a good one and I found myself let down considerably, as this short's director Rhys Graham chose to focus on the weakest links of the tale. On the other hand, "Small Mercies" is such an ambitious story it could use a feature length presentation.

Some tales are driven by their protagonist; the short aptly titled "The Turning" has a sublime turn by Rose Byrne. She plays a trailer park mum, struggling in life but living in ignorance. She meets a wealthier woman whom she befriends, and slowly sees her own life unravel as she benchmarks the success of others. Byrne is heart-breaking as a trapped and conflicted wife. She never overplays this card and delivers a truly powerful performance. This short would be ruined by its terrible closing shot, but it is more than redeemed by her.

In the second-half of the film the genre changes slightly and we are introduced to pulpy, gritty, crime-ridden characters and hard yarns. This is a welcome change from the introspective drama that hangs over the majority of The TurningThese shorts include directors Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) and Jonathan auf der Heide (Van Diemen's Land). Their auteur styles are felt long before the credits roll. I knew immediately when the story started that it was Kurzel's vision of sound and fury amidst immovable absurdities.

Actress Mia Wasikowska makes her directorial debut with "Long, Clear View". The short story of this is an utterly disturbing vision of a troubled child. Wasikowska's take is a quirky, funny and cute one and this was a nice change given how grave the actual story in the book ends.

The Turning is clumsily book-ended and has some misfires, but ultimately this ambitiously sky-high work deserves respect and recognition, fusing literature and film fiction effortlessly amidst a flurry of endearing talent.

The Turning recently screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival and is out in Australian cinemas on September 26.
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