Separation City

Starring Joel Edgerton, Rhona Mitra, Danielle Cormack, Les Hill, Thomas Kretschmann, Michelle Langstone and Alan Lovell. Directed by Paul Middleditch.
Rated MA 15+ (strong sex scenes and sexual references). 106 minutes.

Separation City is a well-written comedy of manners that is witty, entertaining, and memorably acted. But best of all it speaks to our times, offering a salutary take on the old adages that ‘the grass is always greener in the other paddock’, and ‘experience is the best teacher’.

Set in Wellington, New Zealand, Separation City begins with a wedding: that of Simon (Joel Edgerton) and Pam (Danielle Cormack), who in high hopes and on a cliff top overlooking the sparkling southern ocean, exchange vows in a shared (and partly stumbled) reading of Khalil Gibran’s inspirational thoughts about the nature of love.

Seven years and two children later, the shiny patina on their marriage has dulled and Simon, a conscientious father and husband employed as private secretary to a constantly tippling, womanising federal government minister, is experiencing the first stirrings of what used to be called the ‘seven year itch’, while suffering from bouts of sexual dysfunction.

Pam, too, whose career is on hold while her children are young, seems fretful, always tired, and disappointed that romance is slowly ebbing from their lives.   

But one day, through a group of young couples whose wives meet regularly at a yoga class for young mothers, Pam introduces into their lives Katrien (Rhona Mitra, US TV’s The Practice, Boston Legal), a beautiful and gifted cellist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, who has recently come to live in Wellington with her two children and German-born artist husband, Klaus (Thomas Kretschmann, The Pianist).

When Simon sees Katrien for the first time playing her cello at a concert, he declares in voice-over (above swelling strings): ‘I stared at her the way a baby stares at the mobile above her cot’. And from that moment, everything in Simon’s life and therefore Pam’s, begins to change.

Separation City skilfully mixes French farce with serious intent, and laid-back, Antipodean-style filmmaking with thoughtful, sharply drawn observations about love, sex and marriage (libido versus the powerful desire for commitment), that are oceans away from the easy problem-solving formulas of most Hollywood movies.

Much like Danièle Thompson’s Change of Plans (which screened recently at the French Film Festival), Separation City is an ensemble piece about a group of comfortable, well-off thirty-and-forty-somethings, whose outings together and dinner-parties mask, and as often expose, the discontents at the heart of people whose social position and affluence opens the door to a privileged journey of self-discovery. 

Pip (Stephanie Paul), recently out-of-the-closet and flaunting her lesbianism, is married to Keith (Phil Brown), who tries to make sense of his life and marriage by forming a ‘Warrior Group’, based on the writings of ‘Iron Man’ Robert Bly, founder of the mythopoetic men’s movement.

While this attempt to come to terms with their inner, masculine selves provides gentle satire that descends entertainingly into farce, more serious are the drinking and social shenanigans at Simon’s workplace that threaten to wreak havoc on the physical health and marital well-being of those involved in the governance of the nation.

But in a giddying round of opening and closing of hotel and office doors, with a raft of characters and situations which make it difficult at times to keep tabs on who’s who in the ‘zoo’, the heart of the story belongs to Simon and Pam, Katrien and quirky Klaus, with wise words being spoken and ignored by Simon’s friend Harry (Les Hill), a journalist who’s been there, done that, and has somehow survived.

While some viewers may be offended by the sexual escapes of some of the film’s characters, Separation City is well-directed by Paul Middleditch from Tom Scott’s interesting, finely nuanced script, and is recommended viewing for those who are inclined to seek an understanding of others, rather than rush to judge them.

Hoyts Out March 5

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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