SUMMER CODA. Starring Rachael Taylor, Alex Dimitriades, Jackie Weaver, and Susie Porter. Directed by Richard Gray. Rated M (Coarse language). 108 min.
This is an Australian movie that explores in detail the relationship between a young woman, Heidi (Rachael Taylor), who arrives in Australia from the US to begin a journey to recover memories of her childhood and dead father. Her father left her when she was seven, and is being buried in Mildura. Along the way, she meets Michael (Alex Dimitraides), who is grieving about the tragic loss of his wife and only son. On the road, Michael picks Heidi up in his truck while travelling to his orange farm in Victoria. He detours to Mildura where the funeral of Heidi’s father is taking place. After the funeral, Heidi takes up Michael’s offer and visits him on his farm, where she joins an itinerant group of orange-pickers on Michael’s property. Both are attracted to each other, but Michael is hesitant about forming a new relationship, because of his loss, and Heidi is cautious about men, knowing that her father rejected her when she was a young child. For these reasons, the relationship between her and Michael develops slowly. Eventually, she reaches out to Michael, but he is too conflicted to respond. He has dressed Heidi in his dead wife’s clothes, and can’t discard memories of his wife. Slowly, they come back to each other again, and the film hints of a new live together for each of them, in the US.
This is a visual film, rather than one that relies on dialogue, and the scenery in the movie is wonderfully captured by the movie’s cinematographer, Greg de Marigny. The visuals are Australian to the core, and captured intensely by de Marigny’s outstanding camera-work. The story is intelligent, but the delivery of it by Taylor and Dimitriades is intentionally restrained. The scripting has its moments, but overall it is a little erratic; sometimes, the conversation between the characters in the movie appears laboured and stilted. Taylor as Heidi is good, and Dimitraides is excellent as the grieving farmer. His interpretation of his role captures the ruggedness, and gentleness of a good man. There are also some interesting cameo appearances early in the movie by Susie Porter, as the woman who took Heidi’s father away from her, and Jackie Weaver, as Heidi’s beloved neighbour, who has turned to men and drink for solace.
The film succumbs a little to its own artifice. Heidi playing the violin while waiting for a hitchhike to Mildura puts high culture above dramatic effect, and naming the movie after a passage in a musical piece goes too far. In many ways, the film is uneven; some scenes work and others don’t. A comically predatory orange-picker fails to hit the mark, while Michael hiding his son’s toys so that Heidi can have his lost son’s room is dramatically very poignant. All the time, however, the camera stays well on target, and never loses its appreciation of the beauty of the Australian country-side. It is the scenery in this movie, set against the background of the Murray river, that constantly commands attention.
The movie is an impressive debut for Richard Gray as the film’s Director. He has given us a gentle and warm film with a natural look and spectacular photography. It will appeal especially to those, who like to see the grandeur and beauty of Australia’s scenery up there on the screen.
The tentativeness of the budding romance between Heidi and Michael creeps up on you slowly and thoughtfully, but the drama of a relationship that has yet to develop fully, ultimately fails to be totally absorbing.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out October 21, 2010