Fred Schepisi knows how to make the kinds of movies almost no one makes anymore. The tragedy is that they don't make audiences like they used to — and Schepisi's latest, The Eye of the Storm, will feel to many viewers like a movie lost in time and space.
That's no reflection on its craftsmanship, which is superb, or on its performances, which are sterling. But this multigenerational character study, based on a novel by Patrick White, requires a little patience: Its rhythms are slack in places, and its pace is definitely leisurely.
Even so, there's a quiet audaciousness about it. Schepisi still seems to believe that if you tell a good story in an artful, straightforward way, people will come to it. He may be wrong, but thank goodness he's still in there pitching.
Charlotte Rampling plays Elizabeth Hunter, the aged, ailing matriarch of a grand old Sydney family. She awaits a visit from her two grown ingrates — er, children — who seem to be doing everything they can to avoid her imperious, accusing gaze.
Basil (Geoffrey Rush) is a barely employed stage actor who clings to illusions of grandeur — at the very least, he strives to keep up appearances. Dorothy (Judy Davis) has married well and divorced not so well; she's been living in Paris for years, and though she, like her brother, maintains an aura of superiority, she's running out of money.
The once-vital Elizabeth, now shriveled and bedridden, prepares for the children's visit by having her servants prop her up on a lounge: She's been rouged, powdered and bewigged, and she's decked out in satiny finery that makes her look like an outtake from a Klimt painting.
When the children finally do show up, she makes them feel as small as possible, either by fawning over them ferociously (as she does with Basil) or taunting them for being uptight about sex (which is Dorothy's special cross to bear).
As it turns out, when it comes to dispersing her riches, Elizabeth may favor her servants and caretakers — played by Helen Morse, Maria Theodorakis and Alexandra Schepisi (the director's daughter) — over her children, anyway. But that doesn't stop Basil and Dorothy from trying to curry favor with her, even as they barely disguise how much they detest her. She returns the favor by baiting and berating them, her self-absorption intensifying even as her faculties fail.
Schepisi orchestrates these vitriolic cat-and-mouse games with great subtlety and skill, and you can almost feel the pleasure he takes in watching these actors do what they do best. Rush, Davis and Rampling all do fine work here — Rampling, in particular, brings a sensuous, snakelike precision to her depiction of a woman who, throughout her life, has allowed her libido to rule her. Even at the end of her life, she clings to her memories of seducing every man who crossed her path — including, it turns out, one of Dorothy's suitors. Her ruthlessness is its own kind of life force, the thing that keeps her motor running even when she knows it's time to die.
The Eye of the Storm is a handsome-looking picture: Cinematographer Ian Baker gives the whole thing a luxe, walnutty glow. But it isn't a particularly warm piece of work — it is, in fact, rather bloodless. In the course of his career, Schepisi has hopscotched across genres, proving himself as much at ease with romantic comedies (like Roxanne) as with thrillers (like The Russia House). The Eye of the Storm doesn't have the vibrant, whirring energy of Schepisi's best pictures, and its stateliness is a little wearying.
But one thing's for sure: It was made with a great deal of care and attention, the old-fashioned way, and it was made for adults. There's no hand-held camera, no superclever cutting. Not many filmmakers today make movies like Fred Schepisi does; his boldness lies in his refusal to turn his back on tradition.