On a scorching summer weekend in Adelaide, while the news is dominated by the fatalities in a train wreck, a bunch of people confront their own private, inner derailments. Meryl (Justine Clarke), a self-sabotaging artist just home from her father’s funeral, is paralysed by fantasies of disaster. Photojournalist Nick (William McInnes) learns during a routine medical that he has cancer. His colleague at the paper Andy (Anthony Hayes) hears that his girlfriend Anna (Lisa Flanagan) has accidentally got pregnant. He’s about to show his true colours, and they aren’t pretty.
Meanwhile a young builder walking home from work chases his dog across the tracks and is killed by a train. His death is the event that pulls the characters into relationship with each other. Meryl lives in her studio near the train line; she witnesses the accident. Nick, sent with Andy to cover the story, takes a photo of the man’s wife Julia (Daniela Farinacci) at the exact moment she realises her husband is dead. It’s an arresting and beautiful photo, but it violates a moment of private anguish.
The paper’s editor Phil (Andrew S. Gilbert), a workaholic who doesn’t even know the ages of his own kids, runs the picture on the front page. Spiteful, envious Andy has been demoted to “Arts Diary”. Striving to get back into the limelight, he insolently co-opts the builder’s accidental death into an article about suicidal young men. And the innocent railwayman played by Andreas Sobik, driver of the train that crushed the young man, drifts through the movie, silent and aghast, gutted by pointless guilt, suffering beyond the reach of his wife and teenage son.
Laid out like this, the plot sounds almost absurdly over-organised. In fact it progresses in a series of gracefully organic sweeps and curves. From the first frame we sense a free and vital intelligence at work. Trains, precarious bridges, certain areas of bare industrial ground, domestic objects, water, birds flying singly or in patterned flocks – director Sarah Watt lays claim to the images she will use to tell her story, and she interleaves them with grand authority.
Watt, a Melbourne woman, has an international reputation for animated short features, and in Look Both Ways she brings this skill into fruitful juxta-position with realist live-action. The inner world of the self-doubting artist, Meryl, she renders in striking sequences of hand-painted animation. The photographer Nick’s horrified imaginings of his cancer are seen as film footage of creepily mutating molecules. When Nick and Meryl first make love, clumsily and in silence, all the rampaging badness in their respective fantasy-streams pauses, calms itself, and grows still. The tiny cartoon-Meryl floats instead of drowning, and Nick’s cancer not only ceases to thrive but begins to shrivel. These sequences are terribly funny and poignant. Mixing modes is risky, and it’s a mark of Watt’s sophistication that her serene command of tone never falters. Somebody once described her earlier work as “anxiously comic”, but while there are countless moments in Look Both Ways when she makes us laugh out loud, she also draws us onto territory that is very dark indeed.
There is a great deal of speechlessness in this movie. Many crucial scenes have no dialogue at all. Nick is struck dumb by his cancer diagnosis; when he tries to speak of it, to his work colleagues and even to his GP, their responses are so crude and cursory that he is driven back into silence. The characters are freighted, choked with knowledge that they can’t share. The ones who talk most have the least to say. Meryl tries to tell her very pregnant friend Linda – a merciless comic cameo by Sacha Horler – about having witnessed the builder’s death on the train track. “That’s awful,” says Linda, examining her fingernails. “Did you get counselled?” Glancing at Nick’s photo of the widow, all she says, before launching into a list of her own latest misfortunes, is: “I like her hair.”
It’s a death-haunted movie, but it’s also witty, dry and unsentimental in its observations. Watt’s sharp eye (through that of her director of photography, the quietly wonderful Ray Argall) roams everywhere, alighting on excruciating or revelatory details. She gets a surge of meaning from a long shot of a discarded ice-cream on a footpath, or from the slow, humble bodies of old women undressing at the baths. When Nick travels on a suburban train we follow his gaze, made greedy by his terror of death, and are shocked by the richness of what it sees in the faces of his fellow commuters.
Watt, too, is in love with the material world and its ordinariness. Like their director, her characters are possessed by the drive to draw, to record, to make something in response to the unbearable. Meryl throws a failed drawing into the recycling, but Nick finds it there and it comforts him. She arranges some feathers and chips of crockery in the rubble by the railway line, as if in memory of the young builder. Julia, his widow, stumbles past with the dog, sees the little tribute and in a burst of rage kicks it to pieces. But at home she rushes to the shed, saws up a lump of wood and begins to construct an amateurish cross.
Look Both Ways is a work of deep maturity and courage. Perhaps Watt’s greatest audacity is to make a subtle reference to people’s need, at times of shock and grief, for some sort of transcendent meaning. Many of her characters express contempt for “church”, even for gospel music; but when Nick and his sneering, wretched colleague Andy finally rage at each other beside the railway track, Julia’s cross is poking out of the stony ground between them. They don’t even notice it as they yell and curse, yet Watt has put it there, and it radiates all the dumb meaning that a cross can’t help but give out, whether we want it to or not.
Repeatedly she uses water as an image of blessing, or release. The weekend’s tension dissolves when the cool change sweeps in and the clouds, like people’s hearts, crack open; and a tiny scene between Julia and the train driver, watched by his son from under a bright red umbrella that streams with rain, is a beautifully restrained two-line exchange of pained penitence, and absolution.
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