June 2006

Arts & Letters

Beautiful losers

By Owen Richardson

Neil Armfield’s ‘Candy’

The opening credits of Candy set the tone. To the strains of the Cocteau Twins’ ‘Song of the Siren’, Candy (Abbie Cornish) and Dan (Heath Ledger) walk in slow motion into a fairground centrifuge; they fly up; they look beautiful, gazing into each other’s eyes, Ledger’s T-shirt rising to show some adroitly uncovered midriff. It’s a pretty picture of young love but it also looks like a Vanity Fair cover, and it’s a good foretaste of what director Neil Armfield, coming to film for the first time, and Luke Davies, with whom he co-wrote the script, have done with Davies’ 1997 novel about junkies in love: that is, made it both tasteful and somewhat soppy.

The film keeps to the downward spiral of the book, street prostitution, miscarriage and all, though the more entertainingly grungy stuff has been cut: one of the book’s chapters gives us the hero rummaging around in laneway garbage bags to find the detachable head of a syringe that’s popped off through a pub’s toilet window. A different chapter has another junkie getting another detachable syringe-head stuck in his neck and spraying blood all over the walls. (There is also a very funny chapter about the crabs they transfer from their pubes to a jar to entertain themselves of an evening.) Drug movies like Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy delighted in such louche horrors, daring us to share the alternative moral reality of drug users on their terms; the script of Candy squeamishly airbrushes this away – no close-ups of needles going into flesh, for instance.

But once you’ve taken out the gallows humour and Davies’ refusal to squirm in the face of the square reader’s disapproval, there’s not a whole lot left but a love ballad about two children too beautiful to live in this hard, hard world, and a subterranean theme about good-enough and not good-enough parents. Geoffrey Rush, as a respectable, science-academic heroin addict, is Cool Dad. Noni Hazlehurst and Tony Martin are Candy’s suburban olds; she tense and controlling, he haplessly nice.

“She thinks we can be like Bonnie and Clyde, me handsome, her beautiful, both of us glamorous and full of sex and ready to take on the world.” That’s the opening of the book. The film is also in the first person, and Ledger’s voiceover – delivered in a stately, almost upper-class accent that his character never uses on screen – mythologises what is happening on screen. In the book, the narrator’s romanticism is constantly undercut and ironised by the close-up squalor of what is being represented. Skimping on the squalor and never managing to make the romanticism glorious, the film doesn’t make vivid the cognitive dissonance of drug addicts, the self-bullshitting faculty that helps you believe that you are living larger than large while all the time your world and spirit are being made smaller and smaller, day after day.

The book is tough in its insights and its retrospects and its vision of what drugs turn people into; the movie can never bring itself to be so rigorous in its dealings with its characters, either in what it shows them doing or in the tone it takes towards them. In the book, Dan is pleased when Candy announces she wants to shoot up: “At that moment my heart tugs and I feel so in love I want to cry … I can feel the deep tugging of a kindred spirit.” In the film, Dan registers unease before letting her go ahead: “I wasn’t trying to ruin her life,” the voiceover intones, “just trying to make mine better.” But we don’t know what his life was like before; we don’t know who he is. The film takes a lot for granted without ever making it clear enough what it is that’s being so taken, and it also seems to be frightened of the story it wants to tell.

How’s Heath? Well, he doesn’t have that much to work with, so he falls back on shtick. When Candy goes into a pawnshop to service its owner for the money she can’t get for her jewellery, Ledger sits in the car with the same bilious look he has in Two Hands when he is about to rob a bank and in The Four Feathers when he is about to go to war. His feckless-dag thing takes over at times, except that in the context of someone whose girlfriend is supporting their heroin habit by selling her body, it doesn’t come across as cute, but as if it ought to be in a different kind of film. He is less of a heel than he is in the book but, failing to attain anti-hero status, he becomes a hole in the air. Brokeback Mountain showed he could suggest inner depths and turmoil, but although his performance is an accurate enough transcription of hopelessness, it doesn’t go deep, and the surfaces are not compelling.

There is one line Armfield and Davies should have dropped: when Candy asks Dan why he doesn’t go on the game, he replies that he doesn’t think anyone would pay to have sex with him. He’s saying this while trying to hide behind a cushion, but the face that launched a thousand panting blog-entries is still half-visible, and at that point the character he is meant to be playing disappears off the screen.

He’s got more to work with than Abbie Cornish, at any rate. Her Candy is beautiful and angry and finally crazy, and that’s just about it. She has one blatantly off-moment: having returned to the car after her visit to the pawnshop owner, she says, “Yeah, I fucked him.” You would imagine that she is trying to suggest despair and contempt for herself and her hopeless boyfriend, and the resignation that’s trying to blank out these feelings. But the scene hasn’t been put together properly and Cornish, though talented, still hasn’t enough control over her voice, so she sounds like she is reading the line off the script for the first time. I don’t know that a more-experienced actor could do much more with the role. The girl who gives the movie its title is a fierce, fragile, misunderstood creature, a dream of perfect romance … and how do you play a Platonic form?

Towards the end of the movie, Dan – in the sulky tone of the terminally unobservant, self-centred male – asks Candy what her problem is with her mother, and you realise that these kids don’t know anything about each other at all (the book makes this explicit). You may ask yourself what it is we are meant to be watching; why it is we’re meant to give a damn. When Candy accuses Dan of being a waste of space you may feel as if she is sounding a death knell not only over Ledger’s performance but also the whole film. By the end we see him as she sees him, as a total loser; but we don’t know who she is either, so we’re not really identifying with her: we are just watching a movie about a loser and his mad, opaque girlfriend.

The film excludes us from their sexual force-field, never making us feel their erotic charge. Part of the blame for this must lie in the unappealing performances, but Armfield hasn’t made it a sensual film. There is a nice scene early on, when they shoot up in a car wash, that makes you feel that he is going to find some way of making visible the interior thrills of drug-taking, but it’s about the only time the movie gets high; throwing a Mozart mass on the soundtrack here and there isn’t enough. Considering that Candy is a story driven by sex and drugs – the pleasures of the flesh – this is a serious problem.

Owen Richardson
Owen Richardson is a Melbourne-based critic.

Cover: June 2006
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