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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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