Today: April 21, 2024

The Turning

Short film is one of the most under-appreciated artistic mediums around, which is a real shame as it can provide filmmakers with a space in which to experiment whilst remaining relatively free from the commercial and creative pressures associated with longer feature films. One of the reasons why short films are rarely seen outside of specialist film festivals and DVD-extras is that the film industry has never quite managed to find a way of selling short films to a general audience. The Turning is a fascinating attempt to solve this problem.

Back in 2005, the Australian author Tim Winton published a collection of short stories that were loosely connected by a set of recurring themes and motifs. Critically acclaimed both domestically and abroad, the collection was rapidly turned into a play that cherry-picked the more closely-connected stories and turned them into a series of snapshots from the life of a single character. Fast forward a few more years and producers Robert Connolly and Maggie Miles hit upon the idea of using Winton’s collection as a framing device for what would ultimately be eighteen separately-produced short films inspired by different stories in the book. Eager to showcase Australian filmmaking talent, the producers approached not only established film directors but also actors, dance choreographers, theatre directors and contemporary artists. As you might expect, the results are something of a mixed bag:

Marieka Walsh’s “Ash Wednesday” bookends the film with eerily animated images of sharks that fade in and out of the darkness like sparks from a rising fire.

Warwick Thornton’s “Big Wide World” has a narrator deliver Winton’s words more or less verbatim as elegantly-shot images of a pair of teenaged boys trying to escape their lives summons nostalgia and sentimentality only to violently repress them with a cold splash of social realism.

Jub Clerc’s “Abbreviation” involves a dialogue-free beach encounter that effectively juxtaposes the neon green of a bikini with the gorgeous brown of Aboriginal Australian skin only to wind up feeling a little bit too much like a butcher’s window in which a teenaged girl is reduced to nothing more than the sum of her alluring body parts.

Robert Connolly’s “Aquifer” is another almost dialogue-free exercise in visual storytelling in which a grown-up overhears that a child’s bones have been discovered in a lake. Moving between shots of the man and shots of teenaged boys running through the trees, the film accounts for the death of the child in a manner you might not necessarily expect.

Anthony Lucas’ “Damaged Goods” makes excellent use of split-screens to tell a story in which a wife narrates going through her husband’s belongings in an effort to find some key to his hidden depths. In one frame, we see the wife looking through photos, in another frame we see the boy the husband once was taking photos of a girl with a facial birthmark and, in the final frame, we see the girl with the birthmark teetering on the brink between embarrassment and delight.

Rhys Graham’s “Small Mercies” is one of the less interesting segments. Lacking the visual impact that many sections possess simply by virtue of including the fantastic Australian landscape and light, it chronicles an encounter between two broken people and the anger one party feels when the other decides that their particular kind of misery does not need company.

Ashlee Page’s “On Her Knees” opens on a shot of an attractive woman in a bathroom looking slightly depressed. While not exactly a recurring motif, this opening does highlight the project’s tendency to use certain stock images and phrases to get their point across: Putting an attractive person in a bathroom humanises them and gives an impression of intimacy that encourages us to view the rest of the story as being particularly candid and authentic. The segment itself is well directed and revolves around a young man’s failure to understand why his recently-sacked mother would not only finish the job she was hired to do but also decline payment.

Tony Ayres’ “Cockleshell” is another segment that struggles to move beyond the presence of a young woman on a gorgeous beach…. But this time it’s intentional! The story involves a young man who falls in love with a young woman only for her withdrawn nature to keep him at arm’s length. The story unfolds and the couple grow closer but it is only in the dying seconds of the segment that the young man truly works out who the young woman is.

Claire McCarthy’s “The Turning” is another ‘gorgeous people in bathrooms’ job, this time featuring Rose Byrne as an unhappy alcoholic who accidentally makes friends with a couple of born-again Christians only for her life to unravel to the point where she feels that she has nowhere else to turn. Predictable stuff really.

Stephen Page’s “Sand” is one of the weirder entries, as you might expect from a dance choreographer who had never before thought of directing a film. The actual story is somewhat unclear but the recurring image of small children sitting back to back in the dark as sand trickles between them is one of the film’s more striking moments.

Shaun Gladwell’s “Family” is a succession of stock images and overly-familiar themes as a successful athlete walks off the pitch in the middle of a game. In an attempt to find himself, he escapes and goes surfing only for his brother to confront him about letting the team down. Predictably, this moment of anger allows both brothers to let down their guard and share how they really feel.

Mia Wasikowska is definitely one of the more interesting names to be included in this project. Best known for her recent appearances in The Kids are Alright and Jane Eyre, the 25 year-old’s first attempt at direction produces “Long, Clear, View”, a film that evokes the tweeness of Jeunet’s Amelie and Ayoade’s Submarine but lacks their visual impact.

“Reunion” was originally supposed to be directed by Cate Blanchette but she wound up deciding that she would rather act than direct. Her replacement Simon Stone does a good job of capturing one of the more amusing and humane stories but the lack of recognisable themes or visual panache means that this feels rather too much like a scene wrenched from an unyielding TV drama.

Similarly talky but far more effective is David Wenham’s “Commission”. Essentially a two-hander in which a son travels to meet his alcoholic father to inform him of the imminent death of his estranged wife, the piece is hugely atmospheric and features a barn-storming performance by Hugo Weaving as a man filled with regret and self-loathing.

Jonathan auf der Heide’s “Fog” revolves around a police sergeant who is loathed by his colleagues and driven further and further from the beaten path by his unacknowledged demons. Like many of the slighter pieces in The Turning, “Fog” looks amazing because Australia looks amazing but with no information on offer about the nature of the copper’s demons, you’ll be hard pressed to find much to engage with beyond a few mist-covered mountains.

Justin Kurzell’s “Boner McPharlin’s Moll” is one of the film’s standout segments. Relying on a narrator to deliver Winton’s story about a legendary bad boy who met a bad end, Kurzell displays the same eye for gorgeous poverty that graced his excellent Snowtown. Poised between horror and fascination, this segment really captures how a legend is formed.

Unlike Stephen Page, who used “Sand” as an opportunity to move beyond dance and into the cinematic realm, Yaron Lifschitz’s “Immunity” is really nothing more than a filmed piece of contemporary dance. Elegant enough but compares really quite badly with Wim WendersPina, which used many of the same tricks and images but with considerably more style.

Ian Meadows’ “Defender” is another rather talky piece about someone coming to terms with grief and trauma thanks to some cathartic personal encounter. Well acted, carefully paced, and interesting to look at, the piece works quite well as a short film in its own right but its real strength lies in the way that it manages to connect with other segments and remind you that these films are all supposed to echo each other.

Aside from its rather uneven quality levels, The Turning suffers from two major problems: Firstly, while Winton’s short stories connect using recurring characters, themes, and motifs, the production’s failure to create a sense of visual continuity means that almost none of the recurring motifs or re-used characters survive the transition from book to film. What this leaves is a series of short films that only inter-connect in so far as they often share a fascination with regret or alcoholism, and frankly those types of themes pop up so often in art house film that they seem accidental. The failure to create a real sense of connection between the segments means that The Turning comes across as nothing more coherent than a load of Australian short films, which brings us to the second problem. When The Turning was released in British cinemas earlier this year, the decision was made to excise many of the weaker segments in order to produce a selection of excellent short films that ran to less than two hours. The remaining segments restored, what we now have is a rather uneven collection of short films that runs to a punishing three hours. Lacking both the inter-connectedness or quality level required to hold the attention for a full three hours, The Turning is an uneven collection of short films that will doubtless appeal to the kind of people who are already interested in short films: Some pieces are excellent, some pieces are not, but despite this project’s ambition, it will not change the rules by finding a new market for short film.

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The Turning

THE TURNING  UK DVD release 6 April 2015 Dir: Marieka