Filming Patrick White novels cannot be easy or you would think Australian producers would have used his books to previous great effect.
One wonders watching Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm (2011) what was left out of White’s written word to become less than two hours of screen time?
Notwithstanding this, Schepisi, one of Australia’s best-known directors, who earned an international career off the back of The Devil’s Playground (1976) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), has made a great fist of it here.
An Australian film, set in Sydney – but curiously using the Melbourne mansion Ripponlea as its location – The Eye of the Storm could have been French or even Scandinavian with its dark characters and brooding scenes.
For the film maker to have kept the pace moving swiftly with such material at hand is testament to his skill. With much more treacherous and dull elements than my favourite Schepisi film, Six Degrees of Separation (1993), it nonetheless had the similar quality of being a film about dialogue.
To this end, casting a trio of superb leads, Charlotte Rampling (Elizabeth), Geoffrey Rush (Basil) and Judy Davis (Dorothy), splendidly supported by a talented ensemble, proves the master stroke.
Elizabeth is dying in her mansion, surrounded by staff – as much under her manipulation as being devoted to her well being. Enter stage left, her children: Basil from London where his knighthood for services to the theatre seems from another era and the titled Dorothy from Paris, her failed marriage having left her in relative poverty.
Though each is considered a minor celebrity in 1970s Sydney, they are merely failures in their mother’s eyes and it is soon apparent why each chooses to live overseas.
Their first encounters with her tell a lot about their relationships. Basil spreads his bulldust thick which is winning in the short term but he is soon cut down by the acid tongue. The fragile Dorothy seems unwilling to give her mother much, if any, love.
Elizabeth knows they have come to prey over the family fortune and, despite some efforts at showing otherwise, it is apparent to the viewer that she is right.
Swiftly, we are presented with three main characters, none of whom deserve our admiration or love – yet we watch with an interest, rather like peeking through the curtains at the lives of the rich and famous.
Elizabeth’s staff, including the Holocaust survivor Lotte (Helen Morse); day nurse Flora (Alexandra Schepisi); and family friend and legal representative Arnold (John Gaden) are her warm coverlet when she feels cold but she has these people under her thumb too. There is no redeeming quality in Elizabeth except that she has lived her life just as she damn well pleased and she is going to exit this world in the same manner.
Morse, best remembered as Caddie in the 1976 film of the same name and the ground-breaking Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) is marvellous. Her cabaret turns in Elizabeth’s sequined frock from Shanghai are a hoot and, as the housekeeper/cook, feeds the mansion’s staff to excess.
However, Lotte provides the irony of The Eye of the Storm’s outcome. Convinced she is not going to be looked after once the mistress has died, she shuts up the house and takes her own life – perhaps what would have happened to Elizabeth’s children had they not received the inheritance they are expecting.
Flora’s common and well meaning character also shows her vulnerability when after seducing the randy Basil and attempting to get pregnant by him, realises she is not considered good enough to be announced as the continuer of the family line while mother is still alive.
Even the faithful Arnold has his secrets involving Elizabeth but he at least shows a respect for his role in not denying the children their inheritance when a rambling Rampling attempts to rewrite her will in his favour.
There are many other counter plots involving the mother’s infidelity and this is at least the reason Dorothy has been a cold woman, afraid to seek sexual adventure because of her upbringing.
The book/film’s title comes from Elizabeth’s survival at the hands of a cyclone. When after a confrontation, her daughter leaves their island holiday house the mother takes refuge in a shelter before re-emerging to see the building destroyed.
Elizabeth has survived the eye of the storm relatively unscathed and believes this is her destiny. She has the strength to do what she pleases and those about her aren’t strong enough to do likewise. Nothing can stop her.
It may be her epitaph but she dies a tragic figure – feared and possibly respected but unloved.
Meanwhile the children – with the vague hint of an incestuous incident hovering overhead – go off to spend their lives in comfort. Have they deserved it? Probably not but some viewers would consider that a life lived with the mother they had at least partly earned a wanton life without her.
FOOTNOTE: Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, the same year The Eye of the Storm was published. It was for his body of work that he was awarded the prize, with the explanation: “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent to literature.”