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‘Breath’: rehearsing masculinity on the waves
Simon Baker adapts Tim Winton’s coming-of-age novel for his directorial debut

When Tim Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, was released in March, he departed from the traditional book launch with a series of keynotes on the topic of “toxic masculinity”. “Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures,” said Winton, “to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean.”

Winton described the culture on the ocean’s swell, where each evening several male generations commune in the lulls between waves. These boys “rehearsing their masculinity” could be any of the suffering surfers who’ve populated the littoral author’s writing since he won the Vogel in 1981. Yet it feels jarring to recast Winton’s melancholic characters in the parlance of contemporary feminism – say, Lockie Leonard from the ’90s YA novels or Vic Lang of short story collection The Turning (2004) – who often seem frozen in their time.

None are more emblematic of these latent tender hearts than Bruce Pike and Ivan Loon from the Miles Franklin-winning novel Breath (2008), both trying on postures of macho bravado. Simon Baker’s faithful new screen adaptation makes what Winton calls the “shackle[s of] misogyny” plain. Best known for his lead acting role in long-running US police procedural The Mentalist (2008–2015), Baker’s directorial debut is a nostalgic portrait of two boys floundering on the precipice of a dangerously adult world.

We meet “Pikelet” and “Loonie” (played by real-life grommets Samson Coulter and Ben Spence) wrestling in the water with a tactile affection soon to be expunged. Any misconception they’re on the cusp of manhood is struck out by the sight of their fragile bodies – these are the lithe limbs of children, more likely to grow up to be the skinny ratbags of Rennie Ellis’ 1984 Life’s a Beach series than the bronzed Adonis of Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (1937).

Winton’s writing has tended to make for middlebrow cinema, most recently in the underwhelming 2013 anthology film The Turning. Phillip Noyce, who eventually abandoned an adaptation of Dirt Music, claimed that “a poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie”. Baker is better than most at capturing the original novel’s mood – with an adult Pikelet narrating his bygone youth – but the film’s alignment of the liminal shoreline with adolescence is a familiar trope of Australian cinema. Here it’s more the subterranean menace of Blackrock (1997) than the kitsch critique of Puberty Blues (1981).

Cinematographer Marden Dean renders an eternal coastal winter, with sand-weathered clapboard houses washed out in hazy blues and yellows. Beyond the break lies an escape from small-town tedium, whether it’s Pikelet’s “ordinary” parents (played by Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) or the covert fury of Loonie’s father (Jacek Koman). In quiet moments the boys’ legs jiggle manically, thrumming with the pent-up energy of puberty. Surfing becomes an extension of their intensifying competition, with the reckless Loonie urging Pikelet out into deeper waters.

Soon they’re taken under the wing of Sando (played by Baker himself, with charm and vague threat), an experienced surfer who braves the waves others cower at: Old Smoky, Barney’s, and the mythic Nautilus. Sando grows larger in the boys’ adulation, relishing the role of briny mage, expounding half-baked philosophies ripped from the pages of surfer’s bible Tracks about living in the moment and surrendering to the water. “You’re completely alive. It’s just like you felt the hand of God,” he tells his audience of two. “That’s fucken’ hippie shit,” says Loonie, who tries to pretend he’s not under Sando’s spell. Sando soon plays the boys off against one another, using his fickle approval to rupture their bond.

The sighs of Sando’s wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) imply she knows this routine well. Flaxen haired and stormy, she’s blurred around the edges. Her secret lies in a mangled leg, a heavy symbol of her woundedness that she’s forced to lug around. There’s some half-hearted attempts to colour her in: a frustrated athlete with just as many yearnings as the boys around her. It’s tempting explain away her haziness as symptomatic of Pikelet’s limited vision, but surely the grown man looking back could see her sharper details.

Dare we compare Eva to the ocean: mercurial, quicksilver, her siren song luring Pikelet to perilous depths? The freedom bestowed by woman and water come at a cost, the longing to escape urging the boys on towards annihilation. Eros and Thanatos, desire and death, and all that. Water cinematographer Rick Rifici shows waves exploding into inverted mushroom clouds beneath the surface, sucking young limbs under with all the ocean’s wrath.

There’s divinity in the waves, too, which we know because a celestial beam literally parts the clouds to bless them. Breathtaking aerial shots of these boys in motion are the closest they’ll ever get to transcendence, captured with all the wonder of surf classics like Morning of the Earth (1972). Looking down the wave’s magnificent face, there’s genuine suspense when the boys’ skinny frames disappear into a curling barrel and we don’t yet know if they’ll emerge on the other side. “Never had I seen men do something so beautiful,” says Pikelet.

Breath charts the fork in Pikelet and Loonie’s road, where their lives could’ve taken a different turn if only somebody noticed them. Baker clearly sees grace in these lost boys, in their inchoate longings for something more. In his recent speeches Winton said that this is the first step towards dismantling toxic masculinity – to find such boys “worthy of our interest”. It’s ironic that when Baker does so, Eva is invariably drowned out.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

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The Monthly music wrap: April 2018
Gurrumul’s ‘Djarimirri’ makes history

A lot happened in April. Beyoncé broke the internet – again – with a headlining performance at the Coachella music festival. Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. As for Kanye West, well, perhaps the less said about his latest antics, the better.

In which case, we can turn our attention closer to home, and to an album that last week became the first ever in an Aboriginal language to top the ARIA Album Chart.

Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, released in mid April, was recorded over a period of years, and completed shortly before the late artist’s death last July. It blends 12 traditional chants in the Dhanju and Dhuwala languages, sung by Gurrumul, with arrangements played by members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The string players cycle through insistent, interlocking phrases, with the cellos in particular mimicking the pulsations of the yidaki (didgeridoo). According to producer Michael Hohnen – who was also Gurrumul’s closest musical collaborator – these bass lines were transcribed from yidaki playing, in consultation with Yolngu elders, and then adjusted for orchestral tuning. Brass instruments and percussion reinforce the string patterns, and on tracks like “Galiku (Flag)” and “Djilawurr (Scrubfowl)”, the harmonic and textural constraints result in a mood that is nevertheless resplendent, almost triumphal.

These orchestral arrangements draw heavily on the work of modern composers such as Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. (Sometimes a little too heavily: “Marrayarr (Flag)”, with its descending, canon-like string melodies, will recall Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” to anyone who’s heard that piece.) Gurrumul’s voice, often multi-tracked, is one musical instrument among many, rather than being spotlighted in the way it was on earlier albums like Rrakala (2011).

The danger here is that specific Yolngu practices, of which Gurrumul was a custodian and exponent, risk losing their autonomous significance and meaning, becoming absorbed into the “Western” musical catalogue: assimilation by orchestra. I think that danger is skirted, though I can hardly be the arbiter of this, or pinpoint exactly why it’s so. It does have to do with the painstaking cultural consultation process that went into Djarimirri, and also with the seesawing momentum that is both an aspect of the music and a reflection of its makers’ intent. Gurrumul, Hohnen and composer Erkki Veltheim are all credited as co-composers and arrangers of Djarimirri, and the record is a testament to the place they found together, where two fundamentally different musical traditions, Yolngu and contemporary classical, become resonant with each other, however temporarily or unresolvedly.

It’s worth considering this achievement alongside the recent documentary film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Williams, the cinema release of which has coincided with the appearance of Djarimirri. The film, too, was completed while Gurrumul was still alive – he gave his final approval just three days before his death. It was held over for general release in order to comply with Yolngu mourning protocols. See it, if you can.

Williams was granted extraordinary access to Gurrumul, not only while he was recording and touring, but also during his times at home on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island). Footage of Yolngu ceremonies, including initiations and funerals, is strikingly intimate without being exploitative, and serves to underline Gurrumul’s role in his own family and community. Through archival footage and interviews with Gurrumul, his family and friends, we also learn about his childhood on Galiwin’ku, and his early musical career as a member of both Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band.

Williams’ careful efforts to avoid treating Gurrumul as an exotic anomaly are not, unfortunately, shared by some of those who encounter Gurrumul in the course of his working life. Williams captures several instances where balanda (white) journalists and musicians treat him like some holy fool, with an awful mixture of condescension and paternalism. (If your opinion of Sting wasn’t already low, it might hit rock bottom after watching this film.) And when Gurrumul’s obligations at home conflict with his touring schedule, it’s striking how fast some industry types come down on the side of business, in spite of their sympathetic talk.

For all of these cross-cultural tensions, it’s the friendship between Gurrumul and Michael Hohnen that stands at the centre of the film. The two men refer to each other as brothers, and treat each other that way, too, affectionately and irreverently. Hohnen is also Gurrumul’s amanuensis in the balanda world, and he discharges that duty without piety. Williams treats this relationship for what it is: particular and unusual. But it is also clear, when turning back to Djarimirri, that the work of these two musicians demonstrates one way for Aboriginal music, in Aboriginal languages, to be played and heard in unaccustomed yet powerful contexts.

Also of note this month: New York hip-hop star Cardi B follows up last year’s smash “Bodak Yellow” with her equally bold debut album, Invasion of Privacy. Grouper, aka Liz Harris, returns with another collection of elusive, tremulous songs on Grid of Points. And Janelle Monáe follows in the footsteps of both Beyoncé and Prince with her funky studio recording-slash-visual album, Dirty Computer.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.

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The bankers’ prime minister
Highlighting Shorten’s union past has awkward implications for the PM

Source

As Malcolm Turnbull returns, no doubt reluctantly, from the photo-ops of Europe to the harsh world of Australian politics, he is inevitably turning his mind to the need to vaporise Bill Shorten.

And it will not be enough to simply keep repeating the line about “my taxes down, his taxes up”. This is especially the case as it seems certain that Labor will be able to afford bigger personal income tax cuts than the Coalition can, by paying for them through the removal of perks, subsidies and other entitlements dispersed in the prodigal Howard years.

So the killing of Bill needs to be more immediate and direct, and one way to start administering the poison is by highlighting the Opposition leader’s background as a union apparatchik.

Shorten, declares the Liberal Party, was a union organiser and he wants to be a union prime minister. Enough said.

It is true that the unions, and in particular the CFMMEU, the government’s favourite whipping boy, are not popular, and Shorten’s association with the movement is probably a net political minus for him.

But it could be worse; he could be tainted with being involved with banking. Which leads to the immediate rejoinder to the Liberal Party’s argument: Turnbull was a merchant banker and he has now become a bankers’ prime minister.

Since he became prime minster – long before, in fact – Turnbull has been a zealous defender and protector of the four pillars and everything they stand for. He opposed Labor’s early reforms to demand that financial institutions – principally the banks and their subsidiaries – behave honestly and decently. Turnbull claimed it would involve excessive regulation and red tape.

When it became obvious that honesty and decency were not always priorities, Turnbull effectively said that it didn’t really matter – there may have been a few rotten apples, but the orchard was still producing for Australia, a few tweaks would fix things. When the malfeasance continued and increased, Turnbull said that a friendly chat between the moguls and some politicians was all that was required to repair the culture.

But a serious inquiry, a royal commission? Out of the question: royal commissions were for the enemy – the unions, the traditional opponents of the banks since the 19th century. The banks were our mates and always have been – that’s why we’re giving them more than $13 billion in tax cuts. Government by the bankers, for the bankers, and, in Turnbull’s case, of the bankers.

Given the events of the last few weeks and those of many months to come, bankers’ buddy may not be the image our prime minister wants to take into a tight election. But it is the one he has made for himself, and any attempts to change it have proven futile.

Indeed, given the rest of his CV, it could be hard to make serious improvements. In other facets of his previous life Malcolm Turnbull was (and basically still is) a lawyer, not the most loved of professions. But this is arguably better than another of his early forays: he was a journalist.

Now that really is the pits. Perhaps he is wise to stick to banking after all, with all its fraud, theft, perjury and general bastardry.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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Editor’s Note May 2018

In Australia, according to the latest census figures, the average woman does 14 hours of housework and family organisation per week; the average man does fewer than five. Women do three quarters of the child care, and 70 per cent of caring for elderly or disabled family members or friends.

As Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek pointed out earlier this year, “The Australian economy, Australian society, rests upon women’s unpaid work.”

Plibersek referenced the influential work of Marilyn Waring, the New Zealand feminist political economist and former politician. Waring’s pioneering thinking, which Anne Manne writes about this month, illuminated the dangerous inequities of mainstream economics and deserves to be considered anew.

“What we don’t count, counts for nothing,” Waring has said – and it’s not just a neat aphorism. Gross domestic product, the universal measure of economic progress and a nation’s wellbeing, also regarded as “the total market value of all goods and services produced in a given period of time”, excludes much of the work women do. Human activities of which women bear the largest share are made invisible, treated as valueless.

So, what is included in GDP and, more to the point, what is excluded? Why is it that, as Manne points out, GDP “counts the work of drug dealers but not of hospice volunteers”? Who decides? Waring calls the economic measurement “applied patriarchy”.

Manne’s essay is an essential contribution to contemporary thinking on social equality.

“Every International Women’s Day,” she writes, “or when Australia Day honours are handed out, we ruefully observe that, despite decades of feminism, equal opportunity laws and a higher percentage of female tertiary graduates than male ones, we still have a gender pay gap and far fewer women in positions of power. We consider overt and covert discrimination, sexual harassment and other barriers to women’s advancement. Yet the central reason that the revolution is unfinished is right there under our noses in everyday life: women’s unpaid work.”

Coincidentally, Helen Garner is also writing about unpaid work this month. In the first instalment of her new bi-monthly column, The Courts, Garner looks at the essential services provided by Court Network volunteers, the majority of whom are women. We are delighted to welcome Helen back to our pages.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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Epic theatre
Technology intensifies the Brechtian in a recent series of productions

Anita Hegh and Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. © Daniel Boud

Bertolt Brecht’s “epic” theatre was not intended to assist with the suspension of disbelief, or to make audiences believe in and empathise with noble characters, as the name might suggest. Rather, its aim was to reinforce disbelief so that viewers could bring reason to bear on the political ideas being explored on stage.

He ripped away the “fourth wall” and made the viewer part of the enterprise rather than its passive consumer. He managed this by directing his actors to make eye contact with and asides to the audience, having actors play several roles in one play, placing actors in the audience, exposing the designers’ mechanics, and many more tricks

Tech developments have intensified the Brechtian. Several times in the past six weeks, I’ve found myself switching focus between actors on stage and their images projected on a screen, in real time, as black-clad people wielding black portable cameras in metre-wide stabiliser grips moved around the stage.

Are directors and designers keeping abreast of technological developments for their “wow!” factor, or are they deliberately updating the Brechtian ideal for savvy audiences who understand the relativism of truth and perspective?

The Sydney Theatre Company’s brilliant production of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, on for the rest of April, is a case in point. I’ve not always been kind to Tom Wright’s playing around with classical texts, but this time his translation and transposition are masterful.

Brecht’s 1930s gangsters, who stood in for fascists in Hitler’s Germany, are here shifted to a very seedy contemporary Sydney. A skyline festooned with cranes, symbols of not-quite-kosher planning permits. Politicians on the take. Nefarious meetings between crooks and businessmen and government ministers at a round table in the private room of a Chinese restaurant. Murders explained away.

The rise of Arturo Ui takes place in the large-scale vegetable wholesaling sector, which allows not only for our man to start small with standard protection racketeering and rise to the heights of political power, but also for endlessly amusing puns on pumpkins and kohlrabi. That Brecht left the ending open in the middle of World War Two works well now, when our concepts of power, celebrity, probity, decency and democracy are equally quickly morphing: where will it all end?

Along the way, we see Ui craft himself into a demagogue. He learns how to dress for power, how to speak in public, how to keep his own people in check, in fear of their lives. Hugo Weaving is a tour de force in the role: recognisably sleazy and yet so persuasive. The whole cast is as strong, though by chopping and changing roles, they leave the spotlight to Arturo Ui and Weaving.

Yet it is the stagecraft that channels Brecht’s epic theatre most powerfully here. From the opening scene, in which the key reprobates negotiate around the table in the restaurant, half of them with their backs to us, we are forced to watch the action via the roaming camera operators whose simultaneous video is projected on a giant screen on the back wall of the stage.

Throughout, we shift our gaze from the actors on stage to their images on the screen, zooming in and out. Sometimes we have to look at the screen to check an obscured development on stage, or something happening in the wings. Sometimes we watch it because it’s the attention default of our time. The camera operators are so good, the screen imagery is fluently cinematic, with impeccable cutting from one perspective to another in real time. The actors, apparently comfortable with close-ups on screen, are equally expert in their observation of stage conventions.

Camera operators also had their moment under lights at the Adelaide Festival last month. With its emphasis on political theatre, the mix of stage and screen emerged as the medium du jour.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War (directed by Ivo van Hove), promoted as the centrepiece of the 2018 program, conflated five of Shakespeare’s history plays, presented in modern dress with a spin on modern preoccupations. The high-tech delivery contributed significantly to an absorbing experience. Not only were the goings-on on stage projected onto another huge screen on the back wall, as at the STC, but so too were the characters’ off-stage power-play machinations. The many murders were not just alluded to, but we saw them in real time: the method of assassination, mostly via poison infusions on what looked like hospital trolleys parked in corridors, made a knowing reference to Alexander Litvinenko and other victims of Russian spycraft.

Another Dutch group, Hotel Modern, took the deconstruction of the theatrical experience even further in The Great War. With foley artist Arthur Sauer performing a realistic soundtrack on an astonishing array of everyday objects, in addition to state-of-the-art sound machinery, three puppeteers shifted between work tables in front of the audience, using their hands to make miniature tableaux of World War One: landscapes, military vehicles, muddy battlegrounds, people dead in trenches. They too used everyday materials. Small cameras in each of the spaces projected each scene as the “documentary” they composed, complete with narrator, unfolded against the back wall screen.

The assumption of disbelief was so transparent that the audience was invited onto the stage afterwards to examine the makings. Despite the many moments when curiosity about the production activity overtook the action on screen, there were also moments of intense empathy. The head prevailed, as Brecht would have wanted, but the heart did intervene. The final symbolism of the memorial of a gun and helmet, propped up on a twig-tree on the “battlefield”, slowly disappearing as the seasons changed, left many an eye welling as the lights went up.

And so it went. Us/Them, is a dialogue between two teenagers for the Belgian company BRONKS. Created by playwright and director Carly Wijs, the piece is about being caught up in the 2004 Beslan school siege. Within an increasingly complex space of scrawled plans, chalked calculations and rope running taut across the stage, two actors speak the words the Russian children might have. It came about from a conversation Wijs had with his eight-year-old son. “A child,” he writes in the program notes, “unlike an adult, does not think: ‘That could have been me’.”

Forget for a moment the assumptions this makes about children’s ability to reason; a dead bird in the garden can lead children to obsess about the eventual death of their entire family and themselves. The cerebral mechanics of the set precluded us losing ourselves in empathetic response. We were alert and assessing throughout.

The idea for Brink Productions’ Memorial (also at Adelaide Festival) came to director Chris Drummond when he read Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Oswald’s preface struck him immediately. She writes: “This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story. Matthew Arnold … praised the Iliad for its ‘nobility’. But ancient critics praised its ‘energeia’, which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality’.”

Drummond made something extraordinary out of it. The work defies theatrical invention to arrive at something combining documentary and dance. As 215 community members – men, women and children, some of them choral singers – circle the stage and form transient tableaux of mourning, the names of Australian soldiers who died in World War One are remembered. Helen Morse delivered a powerful reading of Oswald’s work as music by Jocelyn Pook permeates the space. The result is both brutal and elegiac. The deep political message comes not from high-tech disruption here; instead, it is evoked by the blurring of genres, with the eternal grieving woman, powerfully delivered by Morse, at its heart.

Postmodernism has made us savvier and more cynical than we were when Brecht was working. No text is sacred now; all written words are, in the end, just text. What’s more, we are leaving a word-based civilisation behind for an image-based one. And if the 20th century gave us horrifying lessons on the difference between verbal truth and propaganda, the 21st century has taught us first hand about manipulation of the visual. We can even do it ourselves on our own devices.

It’s hard to judge whether visual surprises that directors and designers create for us now have a Brechtian pedigree, or are the inevitable development of showmanship in a high-tech world. Or both. It’s hard to judge whether audiences trade emotion for reason because of the stagecraft or as a result of our own disenchantment with the world. Or both. The history of culture, like all of history, is a blind journey. It’s only from further down the track that we can look back and understand exactly where we were.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive
Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

In “The Club”, an episode from the first season of the thrillingly subversive American television series Atlanta, there’s a moment of seemingly minor character comedy. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a deadpan disseminator of otherworldly theories, shows his friend and employer, drug dealer and rapper Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry), Instagram photos from the account of the basketball star across the room whose fame is extinguishing Paper Boi’s appeal at a nightclub. In the images, the millionaire athlete stands propped against what the captions claim is his invisible sports car. The oft-exasperated Paper Boi, seeing only empty space and an old visual gag, issues a dismissive snort.

But at the end of the episode, which has seen Paper Boi’s cousin and fledgling manager, Earn (Donald Glover, the show’s creator), trying in vain to collect their appearance fee from a nefarious promoter, shots are fired by an unknown person outside the venue. As bystanders scurry for cover, there’s a screech of tyres and high-performance engine whine as an unseen car swiftly exits the parking lot, knocking people aside. It’s an exact, unexpected punchline, but it also reflects Atlanta’s puzzlingly brilliant outlook. This is a show where the everyday and the absurd intermingle, where pleasure and risk permanently abut, and no situation ends as you might expect it to.

The second season of Glover’s show, which is currently airing on SBS with every episode to date available to stream via SBS On Demand, confirms the jarring, bittersweet potential it revealed on debut. But Atlanta is not merely about flipping expectations; instead, it uses those radical parameters to tell the story of black America in a way that nods to both social realism and self-aware surrealism. It’s about making sense of a world that is geared against you historically, legally and economically, and always has been. Under such Kafkaesque circumstances – invisible and initially impossible to believe, like the basketballer’s ride – what constitutes a valid response?

“Just try not to die,” Earn ritually cautions Paper Boi in an early episode. “Every day,” Paper Boi replies with weary agreement, and the show’s observations, which fly by with precise insight and tangential humour, reference the realities of being part of the underclass. Transgressions occur without moral judgment and living arrangements are matter-of-fact. Earn, whose poverty gets him hustling to earn commission from the rising Paper Boi, sometimes beds down with Van (Zazie Beetz), his on-off girlfriend and the mother of their infant daughter, Lottie. “I am all we have,” she reminds him, and as a grade school science teacher she’s painfully aware of grinding poverty’s threat.

Glover, a creative polymath who has a successful hip-hop career under the moniker Childish Gambino and will also play the young Lando Calrissian in the forthcoming Star Wars spin-off Solo, is a Georgia native, and Atlanta is an ideal setting for his show. The city’s population is majority African-American, and the episodes are built upon community interaction, regional argot and anthropological eccentricities; there’s no white interloper whose education by the black characters provides cultural exposition.

Presidential politics are ignored because the system’s residual traps are legion. After Earn is present when Alfred, aggrieved at his car being vandalised, shoots to wound another man, they’re both arrested. In the booking facility, inmates and guards alike laugh at a mentally ill man who is a weekly presence, until he spits water on a guard. Without hesitation, the guard brutally beats him. Earn’s bewilderment that the man keeps getting jailed instead of treatment isn’t a sign of compassion, rather inexperience. He’s never been arrested before. Earn’s eventually charged with marijuana possession with intent to sell – “half a joint”, he muses – and has to go to compulsory anti-drug classes. The cost is $375, and he’s told that if he doesn’t pay, a warrant will be issued for his arrest.

A country that consistently tries to incarcerate you creates a self-protective pathology. Atlanta never tries to hedge the character’s missteps. It creates sympathy for the Sisyphean tasks that confront them, but never resorts to moments – such as explaining why Earn dropped out of Princeton University – that would be considered emotional turning points on another series. Instead you start to sense how the various characters unconsciously adapted: Paper Boi is eternally wary, Darius sees life as a science-fiction movie, while Earn struggles with depression. “I just keep losing,” he confesses in the first episode, but it’s not clear if the conversation on the bus is happening or imagined, or which would be better for him.

The city of Atlanta is depicted as sprawling, with yards and green spaces alleviating images of urban congestion that too often become a shorthand for African-American crime drama. The majority of episodes have been directed by the Tokyo-born Los Angeles filmmaker Hiro Murai, another trusted Glover collaborator, who uses the space to find unexpected framing or an angle that recalibrates a scene’s dynamic. It matches the writing, which is always agile but can suddenly veer from the playful to the cruel. Conceptual humour and jarring social critique have rarely been this interwoven.

One of the sharpest arcs is the relationship between Earn and Van, which blooms and burns in ways that don’t get at what he wants, because that’s reasonably straightforward (bed, body and beyond), but rather her more complex desires (recognition, a sense of security, a partner ready to participate in her choices). Van doesn’t suffer nobly as a resilient black matriarch, or nag Earn to be better; she’s more intricately depicted than that. Zazie Beetz is exceptional at revealing the vulnerability that appears after a stress fracture, and Atlanta spotlights her with Van-centric episodes in both seasons that show how she relates to her female friends and wider culture.

There’s a confidence in what’s being made that allows for self-contained sidesteps. In the first season Paper Boi is the bored guest on a (fictional) Black American Network discussion show, complete with satirically askew fake advertisements, which dig into identity. A highlight of the second season to date is “Teddy Perkins”, an episode with Darius travelling to the isolated estate of the titular musician to retrieve a free piano, only to find himself in a self-contained horror tale that is Glover’s acknowledgment of Jordan Peele’s breakthrough feature film Get Out.

Teddy Perkins, as played by an unrecognisable Glover, is a riff on Michael Jackson, right down to the artificially sculpted face and whitened skin. His creepily polite personality, accentuated by a darkened mansion where the elevator invariably takes Darius to the basement, despite him pressing for another floor, offers not merely dread, but a commentary on the demanding fathers of great black artists and the role of music in both elevating and punishing gifted practitioners. It is an audacious accompaniment to the show’s sustained plots, such as Paper Boi’s adjustment to his growing music career.

The episode is also an example of the main players being in peril, whether physical or psychological, when they venture outside their Atlanta stomping grounds. “This is a weird place,” Earn tells Van when she takes him to a wealthy bi-racial couple’s mansion to network in a season one episode, and unease lingers in numerous seemingly public locales. So many television shows, particularly sitcoms, strive to make their settings so welcoming that viewers can readily imagine themselves visiting (think Cheers or Friends). But on Atlanta it’s the opposite – often the characters feel as if they’re breaking a permanent quarantine. “Life itself is but a series of close calls,” observes Darius, and on this masterful production those near-misses have a transcendent force.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

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South African farmers: we will decide
Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

It may have taken almost 16 years, but finally the whirligig of time is bringing in its revenges.

In the wake of the 2001 Tampa election, Morry Schwartz (publisher of The Monthly, I’m proud to declare) commissioned me to write a Quarterly Essay which became Girt by Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear.

In a chapter titled “What Dare Not Speak Its Name”, I asked the forbidden question: was our prime minister, and by extension his government, actually racist?

John Howard already had form: he had amended the Native Title Act to enact the Wik response that favoured farmers over Aboriginal traditional owners, he had called for a slowdown on Asian immigration, and the entire basis of his 2001 election campaign – “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” – was one of jingoism if not xenophobia.

But did it go the whole way to outright racism? I offered the observation: “It is hard to believe that, had those rescued by the Tampa been white Zimbabwean farmers fleeing the brutal regime of President Mugabe, they would have been treated as hostile invaders and denigrated as economic migrants, illegals, and finally potential terrorists.”

Then I waited for the government or one of its many media boosters to offer a rebuttal. Deafening silence – until at last, some 16 years later, the emergence of Peter Dutton, blatantly and shamelessly demanding that white South African farmers should be encouraged to jump the queue in favour of those already languishing in the various camps – including, of course, those sponsored by Australia in Nauru and Manus Island.

It is worth noting that while the South African farmers may feel discriminated against by legislation that may take away some or all of their property, thus qualifying them as economic migrants, it is a big stretch to claim that they, as a class, let alone a race (as Dutton seems to define them) are facing deliberate political persecution.

Certainly there have been murders in South Africa – far more black deaths than white, if that matters, which it obviously doesn’t to Dutton. But much of South Africa is a violent, though not a lawless, society. To declare that the 74 farm murders between 2016 and 2017, which Tony Abbott effortlessly ramps up to 400, were all political reeks more of propaganda than of evidence.

Dutton is more than dog whistling; he is quite overtly promoting his own version of White Australia, in which all but unquestioning preference is to be accorded to whites who want residence, and the rest can rot away in whichever gulags they can find – we will decide.

Dutton says the South Africans will make model Australian citizens. And probably most of them will, when given the chance, just as a great many Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Sri Lankans, Iranians and Afghans would.

Whichever way you cut it, Dutton’s desire to extend preferential treatment to South African farmers is not a good look for what Malcolm Turnbull boasts is the most successful multicultural nation in the world.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels
Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

From the very first episode of FX’s The Americans, the sixth and final season of which began airing last month, it was clear that the show was going to be something special. Perhaps it was seeing Keri Russell, who once seemed destined to be known forever as Felicity Porter, going down on an FBI bureaucrat to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, destroying any preconceived notions we had about her in the process. (Re-watching the episode recently, I was surprised when she got in her car and immediately removed her wig. Her character, Elizabeth Jennings, would never discard her disguises so publicly these days.) Or perhaps the realisation dawned later, when Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” kicked in and Russell’s Elizabeth and Matthew Rhys’s Philip doused the corpse of a KGB defector with acid and disposed of it in a wastewater pool.

Whatever the case, the show made an impression. As it progressed, it lived up to its early promise and then began to surpass it. It boasts a lot: the most nuanced portrayal of marriage on television, an awareness of space that eludes so many post-Bourne action films, a soundtrack that bears us back ceaselessly into the ’80s, and an FBI mail robot that has become an unlikely breakout star. It’s the best drama currently on television.

When the show premiered back in 2013, it was seen by some as a period piece in the vein of Mad Men or Masters of Sex. A show about Soviet sleeper agents working in the shadows of Reagan’s America, it capitalised on a certain ’80s nostalgia, which later shows like Stranger Things would also go on to mine. A family drama masquerading as a paranoid thriller, its handling of relationships was deft and affecting, while its air of geopolitical intrigue was a novel, if seemingly irrelevant, frame on which to hang them.

It is true that the Anna Chapman affair had made headlines a few years earlier, but even that seemed more like a throwback than a clear and present danger, the whole idea of the honeytrap somehow woefully out of date, even camp. (The Americans has embraced a degree of camp from the beginning. All those wigs! Those oversized glasses!)

What a difference five years make. The world and its views on Russian intelligence operations have changed a lot since The Americans first aired. Indeed, the world has become increasingly like the show, even as the show has inched closer towards us in time. The Americans, like House of Cards before it, finds itself in the unenviable position of having been outpaced by the old chestnut that is reality: Donald Trump is president, former spies and their daughters are slumped over in parks, there are reports that Russian hackers have targeted the US power grid and other critical infrastructure sectors. The show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, has responded in the only level-headed and artistically sound way he could have: by ignoring the parallels, focusing on his characters, and attempting to stick the landing on his own terms.

Death hangs over season six like a pall. It does so on multiple levels, including the obvious meta one that is the fact that we’ve only got a handful of episodes left. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power and Perestroika under way. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the so-called “end of history” await. The Jennings’ marriage is on thinner ice than it has been at any time since the show began, the result of the couple’s decision, at the end of last season, to stay in America rather than return to Russia, and for Philip to cease working alongside Elizabeth in the field.

Elizabeth is now overworked, emotionally isolated, and fast approaching her breaking point. She’s killed three people in as many episodes, with uncharacteristic recklessness. She’s chain-smoking like a champion. Watching her one extended scene with Philip in the season premiere – the tone she adopts, the way he stands there and takes it, the obvious lack of connection between them – one could be forgiven for feeling that we’re back where we started five years ago. If it’s harder to take this time around, it’s because we’ve seen them at their best since then. (Hell, last season they made their sham marriage official.) To return now and find them all but estranged cuts the long-time viewer deeply.

To top it all off, there are countless suggestions that someone might bite the bullet as well, which is to say the cyanide pill that’s currently hanging around Elizabeth’s neck. It’s a Chekhov’s gun – or ricin cigarette – if ever there was one.

Indeed, I can’t recall a final season of television opening with this many intimations of death since The Sopranos pulled onto the home stretch a decade ago – “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens” – and we all remember, or at least are still arguing about, how that one ended for everybody.

The final episode of The Americans’ fifth season was titled “The Soviet Division”, referring not only to the CIA unit dedicated to Cold War shenanigans, but also to the new division of labour that the couple agreed upon in the episode’s final moments. When the new season opens, that division has widened, and the first three episodes all but ensure that it’s going to grow wider still. Gorbachev is on his way to the US for the 1987 Washington Summit and members of the Russian military and KGB are worried he’s going to sell the farm. Others, who rather like Gorby’s reformist zeal, have learned that the hardliners are planning to derail the summit with the help of a certain sleeper agent. Perhaps the agent’s husband might be coaxed out of retirement to keep her in check?

The stage is thus set for The Americans’ take on Spy vs. Spy, or perhaps Mr & Mrs Smith, only watchable. This suggests a return to the high-stakes espionage of earlier seasons, which will come as a relief to those who found the fifth comparatively contemplative and domestic. I was among those who appreciated the slower approach and believe it will be vindicated once the dust has settled on the series. By bringing things down a notch for thirteen episodes, and methodically surveying the lay of the land, Weisberg allowed us to catch our breath before plunging us headlong into the endgame. Now he can force us to hold it again as the threads inevitably begin to unravel. One thread in particular – speaking of Chekhov’s gun – comes immediately to mind: the Jennings’ FBI agent neighbour, Stan, who must, by international law, learn the truth about his squash partner and his wife before the final credits roll.

Focusing on the last days of the Cold War may make sense for the show and its characters, but that hasn’t prevented Weisberg from having to field numerous irrelevant questions about current geopolitical crises in recent weeks. “We would like to pretend that we are geniuses who could tell the future,” he told the AP at the New York premiere in February, “but the fact is a lot of this show is just based on research about the past. All the storylines that seem so prescient are really about things that happened during the Soviet period, and it’s just happening again.” Russell and Rhys were also asked about the state of the world, as was executive producer Graham Yost, and doubtless every other person in attendance, whether they were involved with the show or not.

It is becoming all too easy to look at art – particularly popular art like television – through the prism of the events of the day. As a critical strategy, it’s a reliable, highly clickable go-to, albeit one that critics and reporters should be wary of employing too frequently. But it’s also hard to avoid. The events of the day seem always to be pressing in on us, colouring everything their noxious hue, making it difficult to disconnect for even an hour to take succour from entertainment, and rendering even the most minor fare a potential statement on our state of emergency.

Of course, the approach is occasionally warranted. The first season of American Crime Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson, was very clearly intended as a commentary on race and gender relations and how little they’ve changed in America since the mid 1990s, drawing a direct line between Rodney King and Ferguson, between the treatment of Marcia Clark and contemporary gender politics. The recent reboot of Roseanne makes it plain from the outset that depicting the white working class today – the show was always a trailblazer on that front – means depicting the political disaffection and resentment that led to the election of Donald Trump. (The television reboot is fast becoming the equivalent of the Hollywood remake. We’ve already had The X-Files and Will & Grace, with others – including, for some reason, Mad About You – currently in the pipeline. Given the tenor of the times, Roseanne is among the very few that seem justified by more than mere nostalgia, even if Roseanne Barr herself is a conspiracy-minded crank who believes that the federal government is run by lizard people.)

But these are the exceptions. Drawing too many parallels, or seeing everything as an op-ed in disguise, can very easily get in the way of a clear-eyed assessment of the work: by refusing to engage with it on its own terms, or by trying to shoehorn it one way or the other into the contours of the current moment – a moment that had not yet arrived when the scripts were being written and the episodes shot and edited – one runs the risk of not seeing it at all.

I am not immune to this. When I look back over my recent output – indeed, when I look back at the beginning of this piece – it strikes me that everything I’ve written over the past two years has eventually come back to Donald Trump, #MeToo or something similarly plucked from the headlines. Creators themselves aren’t immune to it, either. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year, South Park’s co-creator Trey Parker admitted that he and Matt Stone had fallen into the same trap. “[We were] becoming: ‘Tune in to see what we’re going to say about Trump.’ Matt and I hated it, but we got stuck in it somehow,” he said. (The pair famously had to rejig their first post-election episode at the last minute having all but completed another version that assumed Hillary Clinton would become America’s next president.) The pair promised to avoid current affairs from then on – the 21st season aired late last year – and to get back to basics, to scatology and curse words. By the season’s second episode, however, every other child in South Park was getting mowed down by distracted drivers reading presidential tweets on their smartphones. The preoccupation – ours and theirs – is real. They clearly empathise.

All of this makes The Americans’ restraint – this show that has had more room to manoeuvre and capitalise on the present than almost any other – all the more notable. It has entered its final season with the same cool-headed precision that its characters exhibit when the wigs come out and the silencers are affixed. We owe it to the show to approach it with this same cool-headedness: not as some weirdly prescient missive, or a finger pressed down hard on the pulse, but rather as the affecting family drama and perfectly executed thriller it is. For an hour each week – we don’t have too many of them left – the only question we should be asking about the Russians is whether Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are going to make it out of this alive.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth
Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more

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Early in Merchant Ivory’s 1987 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, our hero (played by James Wilby) and his “boyfriend” Clive (Hugh Grant), come to grips with their love for each other in very different ways. They’ve skived off classes at Cambridge to spend the afternoon in the surrounding bucolic grasses. They lie close together – Maurice silently adoring Clive, resting his head on his chest, and gently kissing his face. But when Maurice moves to kiss Clive’s mouth, Clive moves sharply away. “I think it would bring us down,” he explains. Clive believes that “body, mind, soul,” should be separate, that chaste love between men is deeper. But Maurice wants to fuse what’s in his mind with his body’s longings. This disconnect in their desires will be their downfall.

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” These key lines from Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End are unvoiced in Merchant Ivory’s 1992 adaptation, but the central problem they speak to – how to “live in fragments no longer” – informs every frame. In Howards End three very different families – the bohemian Schlegels, the capitalist Wilcoxes, and the working-class Basts – collide. The problem isn’t just whether these people can unite across different social strata, but whether they can independently connect their intentions with their actions. Forster’s great inquiry – how is a person to lead an authentic life – shapes all his novels, and Maurice is no exception. Maurice refuses to live his life in pieces – to show one face in public and another in private. And it’s a dilemma Forster knew only too well, as a gay man living in England at a time when his sexuality could have had him arrested and jailed. He wrote Maurice in 1913 but it wasn’t published until 1971, a year after his death.

A failure to connect the “prose with the passion” is also evident in how Merchant Ivory films are often critically described. Director Alan Parker famously referred to the films produced by Ismail Merchant (1936–2005) and directed by his partner in life and work, James Ivory (1928–), as emerging from “the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking”. American critic Pauline Kael thought Ivory a great stylist, but incapable of capturing any sense of longing with his camera. Apart from referring to the name of the company formed in 1961, “Merchant Ivory” now also connotes a filmmaking style all of its own. Focused on the films that cemented their reputation in the mid 1980s and early 1990s – A Room with a View (1985), Howards End, and The Remains of the Day (1993) – the broad view of Merchant Ivory is that of purveyors of tasteful but tepid literary adaptations; Merchant Ivory has become synonymous with carefully manicured period pieces, with beautiful costumes and décor, which star the finest British actors and actresses, but are devoid of all passion and heat.

This view is, of course, a narrow one, engaging mostly with the superficial surfaces of the films, rather than what’s actually taking place between the characters on screen. It’s a view also based on the idea that Merchant Ivory is somehow quintessentially British. This belies the fact that the company comprised a Mumbai-born Muslim and an American Protestant, and that their most frequent screenwriting collaborator, the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was German, born of Polish Jewish parentage, educated in Britain, and married to an Indian. All three are therefore outsiders to the world they are accused of aestheticising and fetishising – perhaps allowing them to see the dangers of British repression and foibles, because they didn’t grow up among them.

Recent 4K restorations of Maurice and Howards End, released in 2017 for the films’ 30th and 25th anniversaries, have polished their surfaces. Screening in Australia for the first time at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne (April 20 – May 8), these restorations will undoubtedly refocus attention on each film’s sumptuous production values, which are exquisite and a major source of their immense pleasures. But the restorations also provide an opportunity to look beneath their gilded surfaces – to admire the soft furnishings, and also understand the characters for whom the emotional stakes are high and huge. Like their source material, Merchant Ivory’s Maurice and Howards End don’t simply decorate or venerate Britain’s past. Edwardian England emerges as nothing less than a troubling place of unspoken desires, hidden identities, and dangerously suppressed truths. The inner lives of characters in both films are frequently messy. Feelings trigger trouble. One kiss, one caress, one ill-conceived gesture can cause an earthquake.

Maurice’s entire tone shifts because of one caress, in a scene that unfurls from a close-up on Maurice’s hand as it tenderly touches Clive’s hair. The men are alone in Maurice’s college rooms, their love finding its first physical expression. By concentrating first on just a hand, Ivory creates great intimacy between Maurice and Clive, reminding us that these men are flesh and blood. We also understand the risk they are taking – their embrace abruptly thwarted when a group of students barges into the room.

In Maurice and Howards End there is tension between what is socially permissible in relation to class and sexual relations, and what people actually desire. When characters don’t accept these constraints, emotional chaos ensues. Personal fulfilment becomes each film’s driving force. Maurice, trying to figure out how to live as a gay man when it is illegal and unspeakable, repeatedly pushes against the decorous façade of his life – church, home, and work. When Clive eventually rejects a relationship in which they “share everything”, Maurice finds this in the arms of another man, outside his class – the under-gamekeeper at Clive’s estate, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves). Maurice heats up as Scudder enters Maurice’s line of sight, and Maurice’s heartbeat is nearly palpable as he inches closer to finally having what he has always wanted – to live in accord with his nature.

If Ivory’s direction is restrained, his actors’ performances burn, playing characters overtaken by feelings they initially can’t express, and that, once expressed, can’t be contained. In Howards End, the younger of the two Schlegel sisters, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), lacks the self-control that her older sister, Margaret (Emma Thompson), implores her they require if they are to “have happy lives.” Bonham Carter’s performance style embodies this freeness. Her Helen doesn’t sit still, her enormous hair comes undone, and her emotional eruptions intensify as she becomes more fervently entwined with Leonard Bast’s (Samuel West) fate and outraged at the social hypocrisies around her. There is a similar gush of emotional violence in Maurice when Clive rejects Maurice for the comforts of a country life and wife. Maurice is filled with despair. Wilby plays the scene with the exquisite heartbreak it warrants, directing his anguish towards Grant’s Clive, but also turning it inward. “What’s going to happen to me?” he grieves, deciding, “I’m done for.” And we believe him.

Such impassioned moments boom because they contrast with other sequences where emotions lurk silent and still beneath the surface. In Maurice, a translation class reveals Maurice’s desires before he’s even fully cognisant of them. As a student translates a text about the love between Zeus and Ganymede and “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”, we watch Maurice absorbing it as a way to explain his feelings for Clive. In Howards End, Thompson’s Oscar-winning performance as Margaret spans the full scale of human behaviour. Where she starts off chatty and bright, Margaret becomes most vivid during moments of reflection and observation. The world is cracking open around her. But through the tilt of her head or a shift in her eyes, Thompson shows us that Margaret remains committed to connecting to that world and all the people in it.

The recent Ivory-scripted Call Me by Your Name (2017) – for which he won his first Oscar – too relies on such contrasting emotional currents for its profound impact, and suffered similar accusations of erotic apathy. Some commentators wanted to be visually bombarded with Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) passions. Ivory himself lamented the absence of full-frontal male nudity and sexual frankness in Luca Guadagnino’s finished film. But Call Me by Your Name is nevertheless a fitting tribute to the Merchant Ivory brand, pushing what might be voiced under the surface, so that it emerges, like a silent confession, in every move and gesture of its two leading men. Rather than using directorial flourishes to indicate inner turmoil, the film’s fieriest passions, like those in both Maurice and Howards End, are visible in the nuances of two deeply yearning performances. Like Maurice, Clive, Helen, and Margaret, even when Elio and Oliver don’t tell us what they are feeling, we know how profoundly they are feeling it.

Joanna Di Mattia

Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic who has written for many publications and outlets, including Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, SBS Movies, Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Big Issue and Fandor.

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‘A Quiet Place’, where silence means survival
John Krasinski’s latest film summons terror from the everyday

© 2017 Paramount Pictures.

A Quiet Place ingeniously generates suspense out of the everyday: walking down the stairs, playing a board game, the birth of a child. Director-star John Krasinski and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, play a couple – Lee and Evelyn Abbott – raising three kids on a farm somewhere north of New York. The eldest (Wonderstruck’s Millicent Simmonds) is deaf, and the family’s proficiency in sign language comes in handy after human civilisation is overrun by scuttling predators with no eyes but wickedly advanced hearing. A brutally effective prologue, in which the family ventures into town to forage for supplies in a long-abandoned supermarket, lays out the fundamental rule: silence or hurtling death.

The opening also ensures that we hold our breath for everything that follows. It’s tense any time a character so much as lifts an object – a lamp or a kettle – that might clatter loudly to the floor. Composer Marco Beltrami began his career with Scream and Mimic, and he effectively ratchets up the tension, though it’s possible the film would be even more anxiety inducing without any score at all.

The screenplay, credited to Krasinski and low-budget directing partners Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, doesn’t bother to fill in the background, with none of the characters hashing out the kind of expository questions they’d have canvassed long before the film begins. Where did the creatures come from? The only hint comes from newspaper headlines covering the wall of the basement, where Krasinski tinkers with a tower of old radios, trying to communicate with the outside world via Morse code. The new state of things is economically sketched in other ways, too. Beacons flash into life on distant hills after Krasinski lights a fire atop a grain silo: neighbours signalling that they’re still alive, but unable to really communicate.

Krasinski has retained the bulk and beard he acquired for 13 Hours (that film’s director, Michael Bay, is a producer here), and it suits him. He looks like a man who’d be brewing his own beer if he hadn’t been forced into the role of homesteader defending his patch. Most of the film takes place on the family’s property, though it’s not housebound. The farm consists of the main house, plus grain silos that loom over fields of corn at the back of the property, and a large shed at the bottom of a garden, ringed by fairy lights. Were it not for the nasties lurking in the woods, it’d be idyllic.

The whole thing recalls M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, only bloodier and more nerve shredding. Like Signs, A Quiet Place is about grief and overcoming recrimination, and both present water as humanity’s secret weapon. Krasinski takes his son (Suburbicon star Noah Jupe) to a local waterfall, loud enough to cloak their speech, and the boy reprimands him for not including his sister on the outing. The girl feels responsible for a tragedy that still haunts her parents, though her part in it was motivated by kindness.

The succession of imperilling circumstances piled on by the director can sometimes make this, his third film after 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars, feel like a Road Runner cartoon. Protruding nails, flooding, despairing neighbours, the mewling of a newborn: all collude to keep the family near death at all times. The screenplay also contrives to split them up, and one of the film’s pleasures is the space it carves out for each member of the ensemble. While Krasinski gets his share of the heroics, it’s no preening star vehicle, with Blunt and Simmonds both carrying the film for long stretches, often in a series of silent, horrified close-ups courtesy of in-demand Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt and Molly’s Game).

The helpless terror brought on by the impending arrival of the couple’s (un-shushable) baby is never discussed, but it goes into hyperdrive when Evelyn’s water breaks right before a home invasion. Temporary deliverance arrives in the form of fireworks. The characters refer to them as rockets, which are something of a motif throughout. One is drawn in crayon on the supermarket floor in the very first scene, and a toy space shuttle found there conjures doom rather than the romance of the stars. The status of the creatures as extraterrestrial is, for the family encircled by them, a moot point – surviving is all.

As a metaphor for the terrors of raising children, A Quiet Place suggests that childbirth might be hell, but what comes next is even worse. But it also condenses the child’s journey from ward to protector, in a climax that feels a little easy, and elicits giggles every time. Underdevelopment, in the end, triumphs.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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