SOUTH SOLITARY. Starring Miranda Otto, Barry Otto, Marton Csokas, Rohan Nichol and Essie Davis. Directed by Shirley Barrett. 120 min. Rated M (sex scene).
This is the kind of drama an audience needs to be ready for. As the title indicates, it is a story of isolation, so not a fast-paced action film. In tone and style, it is akin to restrained European film-making.
South Solitary is a fictitious lighthouse island off the mainland coast of Australia. The time is 1927. As the film opens, there has been a tragedy on South Solitary, the lighthouse keeper killing himself. An inspector arrives to make a report. He brings his niece with him to assist in preparing the report. There is a family on the island, living something of a rough and ready existence. There is also another keeper, Fleet, a bomb disposals expert during World War I who is still suffering mentally from the experience. It is noted that the keeper who killed himself also served in World War I. This theme of war, death and illness underlies the film.
The first half of the film establishes the situation and the characters. The rugged island, the surrounding waters, the cliffs, the windswept top with its horse and straggling sheep help the audience feel immersed in this physically isolated and difficult world. The inspector (Barry Otto) is a stickler for detail and regulations, something of a bureaucratic snob. His niece, Meredith (Miranda Otto, who is the central focus of the film), has lost her fiancé in the war and is at a loose end emotionally and with jobs. The mother of the family is a tough type (Essie Davis), her husband (Rohan Nichol), a friendly type, too friendly with Meredith for his own good. There are three children, one little girl whom Meredith befriends, especially in their fondness and care for a lamb, Lucille.
Perhaps a difficulty for some audiences is that the pace of this part of the film is somewhat similar to living on South Solitary, meandering, governed by the roster in care for the light, and limited in the scope for where people can actually go.
When the family and the inspector leave, Meredith and the taciturn Fleet, have to co-exist. He keeps politely to himself. She needs company and some affection. They begin to bond very slowly. He embroiders and reads to occupy the time. She does the same but tries for conversation. The main action is a fierce storm which wreaks some damage and puts a strain on both of them.
This two-hander half of the film is more persuasive than the first half, an opportunity to be with these two characters and understand them better, feel her need for companionship and observe and feel for his coming out of himself very gradually.
While Miranda Otto brings her character to life, it is Marton Czokas, speaking laconically and courteously with a Welsh lilt, who captures the interest. A very gentle finale, open-ended.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released July 29 2010.