The Tender Hook

Starring Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne, Matt Le Nevez and Pia Miranda. Directed by Jonathan Ogilvie
Running Time: 102mins
Rated: Rated M (Violence, drug use and coarse language)
With a title invoking both entrapment by love and a type of punch employed by pugilists, this curious Australian movie is set in Sydney in "the jazz age', which can only mean the 1920s. Yet in it Hugo Weaving's character sings songs written decades later by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and Pia Miranda's character tells a lame joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, heroes of a radio serial that did not premiere in the US until 1933.
Careless? Deliberate? Writer-director Jonathan Ogilvie says he set out to create an iconic representation of the 1920s, not a historically accurate one - what Miles Davis called "yester-now' - but an anachronism is an anachronism, no matter how you dress it up. A bit more emphasis on historical accuracy might have helped this desultory, turgid tale of Sydney's jazz-age underbelly.
It is, first and foremost, a boxing story. Weaving plays McHeath, a shady businessman who sings with a band ('Threepenny Opera', anyone?). His mistress is Iris (Rose Byrne) and he employs two inscrutable henchmen, Ronnie and Donnie (John Batchelor and Tyler Coppin), to do his dirty work. McHeath hires smalltime boxer Art Walker (Matt Le Nevez) as sparring partner for Albie O'Shea (Luke Carroll), a talented Aboriginal boxer he manages, but when he realises that the Sydney public will not get excited over a fighter with dark skin, he conceives a rigged bout in which Art will be promoted as "the great white hope'.
Meantime, his employees are double-crossing him in one of his shady fiddles in the beer trade and Iris does the same by becoming attracted to Art, all of which points to a sticky end for all concerned.
This is a simplification of a storyline that meanders all over the place and is sometimes elusive. The script has its quota of gauche lines, too. You can only wince when Iris's expressed intention to place a bet on some racehorse called Phar Lap is greeted with a snort of: "Glue on three legs'. And it comes as a surprise to still hear dialogue like: "You're up early.' "Well, you know what they say about the early bird?' (although scripting like that was probably around in the 1920s).
The situations are not compelling and the characters are not crisply defined, so it is hard to engender any sympathy for any of them. Weaving's languid performance as the English crime boss comes across as some sort of malevolent Noel Coward. Le Nevez looks the part as a boxer, but Byrne is rather colourless as Iris, and Miranda doesn't quite click as her ebullient friend, Daisy. As for the thug double act Ronnie and Donnie, they seem to have strayed in from an altogether different film.
The Tender Hook may have pretensions to being a tragedy in the grand style, but it fails to ignite.
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Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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