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Filming the Metaphor: Fred Schepisi's The Eye of the Storm
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2011-11-07 07:14:08
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Where there’s a will, there’s a relative

Barbara Mobbs, Sydney Morning Herald, Sep 17, 2011

The Eye of the Storm was published in 1973, the year Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It enabled White to bring Lear to Australia in the form of the novel, the bruising, all consuming Elizabeth Hunter, who presides, like Lear, over a decaying world in Sydney, a kingdom that is coveted by her children, Basil and Dorothy.

Fred Schepisi, whose last Australian film was Evil Angels, has produced a beautifully crafted adaptation, helped by the cinematographic skills of Ian Baker and the absorbing score by Paul Grabowsky.  ‘It was a brave and reckless undertaking’, suggested Australia’s foremost man of letters Peter Conrad in September’s Monthly, ‘the result is inevitably a failure – like Basil Hunter’s performance as Lear – but in many ways a noble folly’.

In a sense, there is no film adaptation that could ever, as Conrad claims, capture a metaphor, though this effort makes a rather good fist of it.  Nor is Conrad right to claim that the beach sequences resemble a holiday advertisement for pristine beauty.  Lear-like, Mrs Hunter, brilliantly realised by the durable Charlotte Rampling, falls into dream sequences (‘morphine moments’) that whisper to a world that is nearing death yet more alive than ever – the ever living, lucid past.  

The present, in contrast, is a cesspool of contestation and challenge, the brittleness of age, the selfish yearnings of her spiteful children, played with skill by Australian veterans Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis.  Both the knighted lecherous Basil and Dorothy, the fragile French spouting Princesse de Lascabanes, are reduced, diminished by the titanic figure of their mother.

In that busy, cluttered past, Mrs Hunter finds herself literally in the eye of a cyclonic storm – Brumby Island off the coast of Queensland, though it is quite clear that, in a broader sense, she is the storm whose eye gazes with withering ferocity or favour at all those in her presence, who is herself transfigured by it.

The past figures as a permanent feature of the film – Mrs. Hunter’s memories lace its direction, and these are filled with the assortment of indulgent tastings (often men, consumed with relish, sampled as if at a wine show).  In some way, each character is an accessory, and victim, to her visions.  The housekeeper, Holocaust survivor Lotte Lippmann, superbly rendered here by Helen Morse, performs cabaret with ritualistic fervour. Sister Mary de Santis (Maria Theodorakis) and Sister Flora Manhood (Alexandra Schepisi) – are her courtiers. The world these residents inhabit is in decay, and Lippmann is terrified that, Nazi-like, the storm troopers of the present – death, an old people’s residence – will come to gather Mrs. Hunter’s world with it.

Love can transfigure, and even as the characters assault each other mercilessly, a corrosive atmosphere White conveys so well, a residue of love, the love that is so vast it is barely comprehensible, peeks through.  The emotionally anaemic and awkward Dorothy ponders whether ‘a mind so sensual, mendacious, materialistic and superficial’ as that of her mother’s could indeed be touched by the ‘transcendental’.  Pompous, shallow Basil, also has his moment of enlightenment in the end.  Like their mother they are eventually guided, however awkwardly, into the eye of the storm. 


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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