From the hamfisted title to the Victorian-era plot machinations, The Light Between Oceans has rich potential to be the kind of insane project that might possibly turn into something great. Consider the elements: Derek Cianfrance, the passionate indie filmmaker who helmed the frowning Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, adapts a 2012 novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. The story’s twists and turns might make a romance novelist hesitate, but Cianfrance embraces them like the bold swain on a paperback cover. He casts two exceptional actors and strands them together at a remote New Zealand lighthouse during the shoot, encouraging improvisation and identification with their roles (sure enough, the actors began a relationship that continues to this day). The whole endeavor is neither commercial nor hip. Surely something intriguing must come out of this stew?
Bill Hunter (1940-2011), a character-acting mainstay of Australian cinema, died May 21. A household name in his native land, he appeared in more than a hundred films and TV episodes, starting with an unbilled bit in the 1957 The Shiralee. He had a twinkle both wry and weary, and a hardpan voice that seemed ordained to pronounce the word kookaburra, though I can’t recall that I ever heard him say that. Key roles? Toni Collette’s father (Bill Heslop!) in Muriel’s Wedding, the Major in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the preposterous Barry Fife in Strictly Ballroom, the gallant escort and longtime worshipper of Terence Stamp’s Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the dentist in Finding Nemo. But above all these, he was Len Maguire, the dogged newsreel journalist in Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978)—the first international hit of the Australian New Wave and the occasion of Hunter’s winning the Aussie equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actor. I loved the movie and I loved Len Maguire. And only part of that was because Hunter—and Len Maguire too—uncannily reminded me of my father as he looked in Len Maguire’s time; Dad had died several years before Newsfront came out. I suppose it was the father connection that led me to assume Bill Hunter was “old,” as a line in the accompanying Newsfront appreciation gives away. Actually, he was only four years my senior. —RTJ
[Originally written as a program note for a University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies film series on New Australian Cinema]
Likableness is, I suppose, a dubious aesthetic category to propose, but I can’t see any way around proposing it here. Newsfront is one of the most sheerly likable movies I’ve ever encountered, and to ignore that, or somehow scant it, seems shortsighted and also notably unfair to the film. Likableness is not so common—in movies, in people, in general—that we can afford to take it casually. And particularly in movies, with so much technology to keep under control, so much second- and third-guessing going on, so much calculation and selfconsciousness and sweaty deliberation, a sense of unforced geniality is devilishly difficult to come by. Who among contemporary American filmmakers can manage it? The only name that comes to mind immediately is Jonathan Demme, who gave us the supremely sweetnatured and wise-but-not-wised-up Melvin and Howard (which, like Newsfront during its Seattle engagement, went largely unseen). Steven Spielberg sometimes, as in the at-home scenes in Jaws and the little-people scenes in Close Encounters; maybe Paul Mazursky, though he can get pretty icky and shticky. Anyway, it’s a talent, probably a gift, and it’s all too rare.
It’s more, too, than just “being nice.” It involves being tolerant of human foibles, but not to the point of sappiness. It means having an eye for the sharp behavioral detail of the moment, and also an instinct for the rhythms that wrap around all the moments—the comings and goings, learning and growing, living and dying that adds up to the history of a community, a social class, a nation; a chapter in the biography of our species. And just as important as having that instinct for long-term biorhythms is being able to devise their analogues in cinematic terms—to make a movie move in such a way that, once you’ve seen it, you feel you’ve shared much more time with the characters than two hours, and that you’ve done almost as much growing and perspective-acquiring as they have. Yes, that’s it: you have to be invited into the film there to live with those folks for a while. And the filmmaker who won’t give you that privileged time robs you of something, and robs his medium of one of its most glorious opportunities.