Gilbey on Film: In praise of Fred Schepisi (again)

The Australian director's latest film has a dream cast.

Regular readers of this blog will not need reminding that I am apt to sing the praises of the great Australian director Fred Schepisi at a moment’s notice. As well as containing two out-and-out masterpieces (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Six Degrees of Separation), his CV is characterised by its eclecticism, incorporating everything from star vehicles (such as Roxanne, Steve Martin’s comic spin on Cyrano de Bergerac) to surprising genre work-outs (the western Barbarosa, the Cold War thriller The Russia House).

If you need convincing that he can coax out and shape unpredictable work from established actors, take a look at Meryl Streep in her two films for Schepisi, Plenty and A Cry in the Dark, or at the ensemble cast (Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone, David Hemmings) in Last Orders. Or - let’s cut straight to the reason I’m banging on about him again - his most recent film, an adaptation of Patrick White’s 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm, about a dying woman exerting a last few drops of precious control and tyranny over her two adult children.

The movie opened in Australia last year, and in the US last month, but has yet to be released here. Happily, there is a screening at London’s Hackney Picturehouse this Sunday as part of FilmFest Australia. The cast is a dream. As Elizabeth Hunter, the imperious, be-wigged matriarch, Charlotte Rampling delivers what must be her tartest performance, and that’s saying something. I wonder how she prepared to play this delicious gorgon, who spends most of the film ruling the world from her soon-to-be-deathbed. Perhaps she marinated herself in a bath of vinegar and spite for several days, or simply watched some of her own back catalogue.

There can’t be many other performers who could convincingly intimidate Geoffrey Rush, who plays Elizabeth’s pompous but wounded son, the self-regarding thespian Basil, or Judy Davis, as her vulnerable daughter Dorothy. (It’s nice to see Davis getting a rare break from the abrasive parts that have been her stock-in-trade since she turned bitterness and sarcasm into a bloodsport in Husbands and Wives.)

Basil and Dorothy turn up at their mother’s house to pick over what’s coming to them once she dies, only she’s not quite ready to go yet. From the moment Elizabeth explains witheringly why she never wanted to see Basil perform (“If you weren’t any good, it would have broken my heart”), you know the power struggles will be more spectacular and explosive than any action movie. Schepisi, who is 73 years old, takes to the material with his customary mix of elegance and energy; his regular cinematographer Ian Baker creates some stately compositions which add an ironic edge to the characters’ petty bitching and bickering, while the pointed score by Paul Grabowksky hints, never too heavily, at the chance that this family’s ancient wounds might heal.

"The Eye of the Storm" is at Hackney Picturehouse on Sunday. A release date has yet to be announced.

Australian director Fred Schepisi, October 2011 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser