Davis and Rush Stan as siblings.

Australia’s Once-Great Fred Schepisi goes Off Course

What happened to Fred Schepisi? His newest film, The Eye of the Storm, is such a messed-up family comedy, it seems the work of an unhinged amateur who is both amused by his subject and yet incapable of dealing with it.

Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling), a dowager dying in her Australian mansion, is visited by the two middle-aged children she mistreated. Son Basil (Geoffrey Rush) is a scalawag actor in a second-rate traveling troupe, and daughter Dorothy (Judy Davis), now divorced from her blue-blooded European husband, is adrift. Both need money—as well as the motherly affection they never got. The mixed emotions of their death watch parallel Schepisi’s mixed approach. The confused structure and listless tone are unlike the stimulating precision of Schepisi’s past movies.

During the 1980s, Schepisi made a plausible bid for Australia’s best filmmaker. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith dealt with the historic calamity of an aborigine whose murder spree revealed the same racial fissures as America’s Confessions of Nat Turner but with the kind of immediacy and frankness about race that—for both judicious and cowardly reasons—modern filmmakers of the West abandoned after Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Even The Devil’s Playground, a revelation of boarding-school tyranny, was an observation of Australian culture that went deeper than the facile anti-clericalism of most such tales and evidenced a singular style.

It seemed that Schepisi demonstrated unusual boldness without the artsy affectations that enervated Peter Weir’s, Gillian Armstrong’s and Paul Cox’s filmmaking. Schepisi had both vision and detachment, which made his American western Barbarossa a rare, thrilling genre exercise that was authentic in its grasp of frontier-Hollywood character types—a gift that’s missing from Andrew Dominik and John Hillcoat’s phony American westerns. It was in several American-made projects that Schepisi lost his grip—Roxanne, Iceman, both impersonal hack jobs.

But Schepisi maintained a visionary objectivity when he returned to Australia for A Cry in the Dark, the difficult, real-life story of Lindsay Chamberlain’s trial and her claim that her newborn baby was killed by a dingo—a subject that benefited from Schepisi’s adroit coolness.

Some intense, passionate disorder might be forgiven in The Eye of the Storm, but that’s not what Schepisi provides. Based on a Patrick White novel, the film desultorily parallels Elizabeth, Basil and Dorothy’s family conflict with Australia’s cultural tensions. As in A Cry in the Dark, this family’s tragicomedy is reflected in the social tensions of Elizabeth’s household staff (a trio of needy attendants—including Helen Morse as Lotte, the singing-dancing cook) and local politicians.

It’s these personal/public shifts that Schepisi most obviously fails to pull together; he’s lost the sweeping flow that distinguished Jimmie Blacksmith, A Cry in the Dark and even his try at contemporary American irony in Six Degrees of Separation. This script doesn’t find a way to blend its private and social visions or the ironic humor of family love and regret. Scenes go from poignant to comic, sad to absurd, surreal to sentimental as aged Elizabeth flaunts her idiosyncratic past and her grown children cravenly wait for their inheritance—groveling as a livelihood and a national embarrassment.

Actors Rush and Davis co-produced The Eye of the Storm, which may explain its dizzy problems as an actors’ vehicle. The narrative suggests a series of theatrical poses in shards (Williams, Albee, Shepherd even Guare). Rush’s hammyness has become familiar, but Davis is surprisingly funny, with fewer neurotic tics than usual, almost an original characterization as a woman “still full of the wrongs done against her” but intent on fooling others, never herself. Rampling seems miscast, except for flashbacks to her younger days competing with her daughter for a beau. She tells her daughter, “I like a bit of a slut in a woman. We both want to taste everything,” but self-dramatizing confessions contradict Schepisi’s detached perspective .

The storm metaphor doesn’t justify the film’s chaotic narrative or its inconsistent tones. Occurring in flashback, the storm isn’t related to the environment or characters’ habits—and when is there calm? This lack of atmosphere (Schepisi’s former strength) goes to make Rush’s voice-over narrative feel like a desperate effort at cosmetic order. Instead, it’s Schepisi’s unexpected imprecision that keeps the movie falling apart.

Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xchair