Charlotte Rampling turns the ripe-o-meter up to 11 for this unabashedly old-school literary romp.
A prime example of when huge slab of ham can actually taste pretty decent. This grandiloquent, mannered Merchant-Ivory Xerox sees an ailing grand dame (Charlotte Rampling) attempting to correctly apportion her vast estate between her vile stage actor son (Geoffrey Rush) and rotten prig daughter (Judy Davis), and it's an unironic throwback to a cinema that's rooted in the militantly old-fashioned values of robust, unambiguous emotions, ripe dialogue and performances the size of a runaway zeppelin.
The initial feeling is that it's the three central actors who bring this film to life rather than the stuffy source material c/o author Patrick White or Fred Schepisi's bland, conventionally neat direction. Even with her regal, purple-wigged dowager detained to her bed for 90 per cent of the film, the always-riveting Rampling manages to cake on the texture and charm. She's also fed a decent tranche of juicy barbs, each one delivered with more withering relish than the last.
Underneath the tale of familial decay, generational back-biting and upstairs/downstairs class conflict, this is foremost a film about the problems of financial entitlement and the difficulties of growing up in a family that has been broken apart by a late rekindling of sexual desire. It perhaps even harks back to Visconti's The Leopard, presenting a luxuriant, carefree mode of upper-class life that is teeters on the cusp of no longer being economically or socially viable.
Yet there are problems, notably a tangle of weak substrands that never amply feed into the central drama. One of the maids is a textbook sexpot, and shots of her coquettishly undressing with the door open come across as a weak attempt to kick start the bed hopping. Rush's thesp pals, too, are sketchily-drawn archetypes, all awful red-nosed snobs with cravats and limp wrists and disdainful of anyone who doesn't pick up on their obscure Lear references.
The film is largely an Australian production, and it plays like a big ol' Aussie soap opera. Certainly there a few stand-offs that strive for a Bergmanesque bile of Cries & Whispers, but it too often settles for easily-digestible intrigue rather than complex human drama. There's also a big metaphorical storm tossed in for good measure, just in case we were in any doubt that these characters have psychologically demolished by the precarious nature of their situation.
Oh golly, an Australian literary romp. With Charlotte Rampling.
Antiquated and frumpy, but not without its light charms.
Some very game performances are let down by weak source material.