THE EYE OF THE STORM. Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis, Helen Morse, Robin Nevin, Alexandra Schepisi, Colin Friels Directed by: Fred Schepisi. Rated MA 15+ (Strong sex scenes and adult themes). 114 minutes.
No novelist has better conveyed the destructive relationship between a mother and her children than Patrick White in his 1975 novel The Eye of the Storm. Written in a complex style that structurally mirrors a tempest with debris and destruction swirling chaotically around a calm, impenetrable centre, it is a novel that stays memorably in the mind long after reading it, but without words other than the writer’s own, to describe with accuracy what has occurred.
Fred Schepisi’s film adaptation of The Eye of the Storm, scripted by Judy Morris, is therefore to be commended and admired. Set in Sydney’s well-heeled Centennial Park in the 1970s, Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) lies dying in her mansion, attended by her housekeeper, Lotte (Helen Morse), two nurses (Alexandra Schepisi and Robin Nevin), her doctor, and her two visiting children, Basil (Geoffrey Rush), a noted actor, and her daughter, Dorothy de Lascabanes (Judy Davis).
For over half its length the film is totally captivating, and so absorbing are the characters, and the ins-and-outs of the complex situation that unfolds before the viewer’s mesmerised eyes, that time passes swiftly. But subtly, as the story progresses, the viewer’s attention wavers, and as the story devolves into a series of vignettes, imaginatively and entertainingly enacted (Helen Morse is especially memorable as the housekeeper), the characters to their own detriment appear to have little structural purpose beyond their being mere cyphers to the main character, the eye of the storm herself, the mother, played magnificently by Rampling.
As good as their performances are, Rush as ‘Sir Basil’, and Davis as Dorothy, a ‘princess’ (having been married to very minor European royalty), it is difficult to feel sympathy for these two ostensibly shallow, almost caricature characters, the exception being the scene in which the brother and sister, lying emotionally exhausted together on a bed, show empathy for each other, both of them being unfortunate enough to have been born to such an undermining, unloving and seemingly vindictive mother as theirs.
In this context, the ‘eye of the storm’ itself (an incident in the past) which manifests late in the film seems strangely anti-climactic and almost peripheral, although it is superbly staged and the one scene in which we are shown a glimpse of Elizabeth as a person, and not just a brutal, mysteriously uncaring mother.
Very largely, the difficulty encountered in translating White’s novel to the screen in a completely satisfying way is due to the novel’s complex structure, and White’s exceedingly ambivalent attitude to his own mother. There is the suggestion in both the novel and the film that White struggled all his life to make sense or forgive her.
This lies at the heart of Schepsi’s difficulty, which it can be argued makes his Eye of the Storm so complex and richly rewarding.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 15th September 2011.