Starring Frances O’Connor, Deborah-Lee Furness, Miranda Otto and William McInnes. Directed by Ana Kokkinos.
Rated MA15+ (strong themes, coarse language and sexual references). 115 mins.
“These are my blessings,” howls Rhonda (Frances O’Connor), grief-stricken after two of her children meet with a horrific accident. Blessed, by Melbourne director Ana Kokkinos (1998’s Head On and 2006’s The Book of Revelation), is a slightly ironic title, since for the mothers in the film the way their offspring behave is anything but a benediction. Yet the bonds of maternal love, although they may fray at the edges, are not severed.
Based on a theatre piece, Who's Afraid of the Working Class?, by the screenwriters Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsiolkas, it owes its style and structure to the way Bovell wrote his much-lauded Lantana: the several stories seem at first to have little in common, but as the many strands develop they intersect and overlap in small ways.
It is hard to present a digest of such a complex screenplay, but it is about mothers and their children. The first part of the film is titled The Children, and in the first 50 minutes we are introduced to seven children who, in one way of another have disappointed their parents. Six of them are teenagers; the seventh is an Aboriginal detective.
Two teenage girls drink bourbon on their way to school, then play truant and go shoplifting; one boy breaks into a house to steal money from a kind old lady; a 14-year-old boy takes his intellectually handicapped sister to live on the streets; a homosexual Greek teen goes missing, letting his distraught mother believe he is dead; and the detective cannot bring himself to identify his mother’s body at the morgue.
Why do these children behave the way they do? Some of the answers are revealed in the second part of the film, The Mothers. Here we see the circumstances of the mothers’ lives and we can perhaps sympathise with the actions of their children. Some scenes from early in the film are reprised but seen this time from the mothers’ point-of-view.
Rhonda, who has three children and a fourth on the way, stumbles from one bad relationship to the next; there’s friction over money between Tanya (Deborra-Lee Furness) and her lazy husband (William McInnes), who no longer shows her any affection; Bianca (Miranda Otto) cares for little but drinking and the pokies; Gina (Victoria Haralabidou) is a devoted mum but over-tired from her work as a dressmaker; Laurel (Monica Maughan) is an old lady whose great sadness is that her son doesn’t visit her.
Bovell and his collaborators assemble a detailed mosaic that draws the viewer in and becomes progressively more powerful and enthralling as the final pieces fall into place. Kokkinos, well attuned to the demands of the script, extracts splendid performances from her cast and delivers a very polished, impressive film, with notable assistance from Geoff Burton’s eye-catching cinematography of Melbourne and Cezary Skubiszewski’s brooding music score.
Blessed could never be called a cheery film and the language and content may not suit everyone, but it is a mature and thought-provoking piece of cinema that looks certain to be in contention when the AFI Awards come around.
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Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.