Sunday, December 11, 2005

Little Fish

This movie is getting some very mixed reviews: Simon Morris raved, albeit briefly, about it on National Radio, saying it was a "grown up" movie; the Sunday Star Times was rather more subdued in its praise and another piece I read simply said it was "too slow". That, however, was its charm. This is a very textured film, one which is slow to put its cards on the table. I like that. Those familiar with the more pop of Australian cinema or with the underworld of drug-dealing might well expect something different: more cheese? singing? humour? more pace? a higher body count? violence? grit a foot deep? Romper Stomper it aint - in fact the movie it most reminds me of in terms of its developmental style is Japanese Story. Except for the bit where Hugo Weaving gives our Sam Neill a big old kiss fair square on the lips.

A lot of the story is configured by events five years earlier: Lionel (Weaving) gets Tracy (Blanchett) hooked on heroin (the little fish of the title refer to Tracy's swimming habit and the little containers (apparently used in Asian restaurants for soy sauce, but we're obviously not that flash in Dunedin) in which heroin is trafficked as well as the place of the characters in the overall scheme of things), which causes Janelle (her mum, played by Noni Hazlehurst) to biff Lionel out on his ear. Tracy, her brother Ray (Martin Henderson) and her boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) are all caught up in drug dealing until Jonny has a big car crash. His family spirit him away but Ray loses his leg and doesn't really seem to have done much in the intervening years.

Tracy has managed to stay clean ever since: when we meet her, she's a manager of an Asian video shop in a suburban Sydney Mall, trying to find to make something of her life. She wants a bank loan so she can set up a net cafe and become the owner of where she works. She doesn't really think its enough, but can't think of what else she might want to do with her life. Of course, with her history, banks aren't exactly forthcoming.

The film covers about a week of her life: the week in which she has committed to go ahead with setting up the net cafe but hasn't been able to tell anyone there is no money to do it with. It is also the week that Lionel is finally trying to go clean but only because his drug-dealing partnership with Brad (Sam Neill) has come to an end, meaning he'll have to pay for his drugs. He can't do it - he sends Tracy out to score for him, raising concerns with her family that she's going back into that scene. Tracy takes care of him simply because of all the men who came through her mother's life, and despite his hopelessness, Lionel was the only one who took the time to love them. And it is the week that Jonny comes back from Vietnam, keen on picking up where he left off with both Tracy and Ray. Ray is keen, but Tracy is much more reluctant.

It is Jonny's return which gives the movie its forward movement - Jonny and Ray are plotting with Brad's former 2IC Steven (Joel Tobeck) to get some deals running. It turns out that Steven has been running deals his boss knew nothing about, which adds an extra dimension to the closing scenes. Then, when Tracy's thing with the bank doesn't pan out, it is Jonny who promises to work out a way to get the money for her. We know what that will be, but she doesn't, not for a while anyway.

And so we come to a showdown, of sorts. The film finishes with Tracy swimming, and Ray and Jonny watching her. The Sunday Star Times criticised this as being too glib an ending, as if their problems are all behind them, but I don't know how they reach that conclusion. I'd say it is simply far too ambiguous an ending to know how things will be.

Rather than being a movie about events, it is really one about (a) the consequences of those events, (b) the need to take responsibility and (c) the relationships between the central characters. I have to say that almost everyone did a superb job: Cate Blanchett seemed born to the role and was stunning throughout. I did have a problem with Sam Neill, who didn't seem to take to his part too well, and was just Sam Neill. There was a cute quote from Martin Henderson during Simon Morris's review: he said he turned up to the set ready to go, found out how much work the other actors had done to get into their roles (Blanchett had interviewed drug addicts, for example) and felt shamed into doing more.


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