Running Time: 95 mins
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (frequent coarse language, violence, adult themes, depictions of nudity in a sexual context.
Much is empty and lost in 'Ten Empty', the new Australian Psychodrama playing in Cinemas now. You could start with suburbia, that imagined space of empty windows, where occasionally, blurred figures peer out. Even the pubs swim in emptiness. In this film, Elliot, the prodigal son played by Daniel Frederiksen, returns home from a successful job in the big smoke for the Christening of his half-brother. But the Christening brings into dark focus the film's central and absent character, the mother and first wife who committed suicide. Ross, (Geoff Morrell), the father and husband has remarried his first wife's sister. But there is something so dysfunctional and wrong with the whole family that even a Christening cannot cure it. The film's director, Anthony Hayes, returns here to the subject of suburbia, having played it before in 'The Boys' and 'Suburban Mayhem', seeking to show, he says, the sensitive side of the working class experience.
Once Elliot arrives home, edging into the house past the dusty car and venue of his mother's suicide, he finds new horror. His younger brother, Brett, about twenty-three years old, (Tom Budge), once his father's pride and joy, is sunk into deep depression in the bedroom above. He lies silent and terrified, huddled on a thin mattress, surrounded by towers of boxes labelled eerily after parts of his life; 'school uniforms', 'mum's clothes' etc. The room has become a bunker and both his father and step-mother seem intent on ignoring the appalling reality of his state. His meals, wrapped in alfoil, are left outside the bedroom door. This is, in fact, a haunted house. The young mother and baby drift, detached from the human tragedy and far, far too much drinking. Maybe Dianne (Lucy Bell), hopes that the Christening will bring in the light, but the ceremony itself is a debacle. Neither brother is at all excited about the new baby and enduring the ceremony proves beyond them. The unaccountable visit to the mother's grave before Church sets the scene.
Suburbia gets its traditional work-over. There are vertical blinds, darkened rooms, crowded floral furniture, plastic outdoor tables and chairs, barbecues with burnt offerings, awful t-shirts and constant beer drinking. The men wander the empty house in droopy Y-Front undies. Words are hard to mint and feelings struggle to emerge, except for bitterness and anger. The relationship between father and sons is coldly defensive, Ross despising his exiled son for a red wine drinker and wearer of 'fancy shirts' and Elliot despising Ross for his treatment of his first wife. Sexuality is suppressed and small minded; drunken despair is the norm.
As the film ends, appalling things happen. Ross has no capacity to manage psychological illness. Patently, he had already failed with his first wife. He treats Brett more as someone who is recalcitrant, forcing pills down his throat, treating medical advice contemptuously, pushing the boy around physically. The pattern of destruction worsens and Brett finally fills his mother's ten empty canvases with pictures of his own despair.
This is a story of two brothers, one who escaped his dysfunctional family and one who didn't. Repressed and mad families trapped in suburban misery can make for powerful drama. This film does not. The hand of the director is too heavy; the script is heavy handed. Suburbia is cast into an ageing cliché. In spite of the excellent cast, the family does not act like a family at all. Definitely the baby is the most heart warming of all the characters and mercifully untouched by the surrounding rancour. In the end he and his mother escape whilst the retuning exile gets trapped.
This was a very difficult film to watch. I found myself pressed into the corner of my seat the whole way. When, at one stage, the baby seemed under threat, I and the one other person in the theatre, drew audible breath. Guilt, drink, male inarticulacy, the confrontation wrought by psychological illness, all housed in the papier mache world of suburbia. Somehow, Australian cinema needs to exorcise these ghosts.
Dragonfly Pictures Out now
Mrs Jenny MacMillan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting