June 2007

Arts & Letters

Australian beauty

By Luke Davies
Cherie Nowlan’s ‘Clubland’

To call Cherie Nowlan's excellent new movie, Clubland (released nationally on 28 June), a comedy would be not to get it entirely right. It is a funny film, and if you had to choose a genre to describe it, comedy is certainly the one. When it's hilarious, it is very hilarious. Yet it has a surprisingly dark undercurrent, and this makes it more resistant to pigeonholing than the average Australian comedy. Indeed, one of the many pleasant surprises in this charming, disarming tale of mother-son separation anxiety and the glorious, bumbling energies of youth is the way in which it allows space for both its lightness and its darkness to play out, without ever losing its warmth.

Twenty-one-year-old Tim (Khan Chittenden), a virgin when the story opens, lives at home with his mother, Jean (Brenda Blethyn), and disabled brother, Mark (Richard Wilson). Jean, a stand-up comic of some renown in long-ago, faraway England, works in a factory, makes some money on the side home-tutoring local kids in singing and performing (the quirky moments videotaped by Mark create great little riffs in the film), and is trying to make a comeback in her comedy career. In the opening sequence, we learn pretty much all we need to know of her past from photos on the mantelpiece: an old black-and-white publicity shot shows her with Benny Hill, smiling for the camera.

Tim is seriously under his mother's thumb. But into his world comes the gorgeously lusty Jill (Emma Booth, whose departure from the world of international modelling is cinema's gain). While the story takes place on the battleground between mother and son - his desire to break free pitted against hers to hold on to him - it is Jill who, while not dominating the screen time, becomes the radiant centre of the film, the undamaged energy of eros at its core, the catalyst among the pigeons. In fact, though the deep story is Tim's coming of age and cutting of the apron strings, much of the overt dramatic energy is in the fierce contest of wills between Jill and Jean, an unstoppable force versus an immoveable object. Booth plays the rival to Jean's affections with a freewheeling, devil-may-care kind of gangly grace.

Superbly scripted by Keith Thompson, Clubland is an unusual split-viewpoint story. We constantly veer from Jean's neurosis to the sunshine offered by Tim, and back again, but the two elements of the film don't jar and it is pleasant to go with the flow, to find yourself in either realm. Khan Chittenden is beautifully, breathlessly inept as a kind of beta male not even remotely aware that the girls find him hot - or cute, at least. In real life this type of 21-year-old is not uncommon: all that beguiling, flush-cheeked insecurity. But most young-buck actors are all too aware that they're hot, of course, and the problem is they don't have the experience to convincingly hide that awareness; the result, in this type of coming-of-age film, can be a show reel of self-preening. That has been avoided in Clubland. Chittenden gets it just right, and while he plays it deadpan, much of the film's comedy comes from the sense of him as a young puppy in the park: he so desperately wants to frolic with the other dogs, but his master has him browbeaten, and he just can't get all that obedience-school training out of his head.

It's all so deftly put together that we have not a single doubt about where things are heading. The unhealthily cloying three-way relationship between Jean and Tim and Mark is a hermetically sealed unit that will be pierced by Jill: the air will rush in. Hallelujah! Everyone will have a satisfying resolution. This foreknowledge doesn't matter in the least: the delight is very much in the journey.

All the characters are skilfully rounded. Richard Wilson, unrecognisable from his role in John Hillcoat's The Proposition, plays the disabled Mark with a wonderfully panicky self-absorption. Mark's world is complete: the small things are huge. In the absence of a life of his own, his brother's drama becomes his. Frankie J Holden is subtly and comically touching as their father, a security guard in a suburban shopping mall, a former country-and-western star (number one on the country-music charts for three weeks in 1975) who is also trying to revive his career - though his chances of success, it must be said, seem more forlorn even than Jean's. Rebecca Gibney is terrific as Jean's ultra-suburban-Aussie-bogan best friend, a long-suffering subordinate who's seen better days. These people are cinematic types, certainly, but in Clubland, thanks to a well-turned script and coherent direction, they come across as characters, not caricatures, and the result is a genuine ensemble piece.

The darkness is all contained within the complex, conflicted character of Jean, who Brenda Blethyn, managing to be shrill and nobly tragic at the same time, plays with a powerful mix of combativeness and vulnerability. If Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies wasn't enough to cement her standing as a great leading lady in contemporary cinema, this film will do it. Jean seems to be teetering on the edge of a furious hysteria, as if all her repressed resentments will spill out if not continually plugged. As the controlling parent from hell, she causes us to laugh at the same time as we cringe. She contains all the intrinsic sadness of stand-up comics, too, but in Clubland that sadness is explored rather than avoided. It is one of those huge, meaty roles that takes you by surprise. Only an actor of serious depth could handle and play so well such a flippant and disconnected character, which Jean is for about 80% of the film's running time. But it is in the other 20% that the real woman emerges, with all the weight of her history, the full depth of her sadness and anger, and their resultant fusion into a kind of grimacing neurosis. This is the film's surprising feat: to plant all that in a laugh-out-loud comedy.

There's an aggression inside her too, almost a rancorous bitterness at times. It seems to have its source in her vulnerability, which is at its most poignant when she is dying - or rather, only half living - on stage. She's a pretty dreadful stand-up comic, if truth be known: it's that creepily phallocentric schtick descended from the English music-hall tradition down through the likes of the aforementioned Benny Hill. She even resorts to tired balloon routines in which the balloons inflate and deflate, nudge nudge. This obsession, effectively an obsession with the dangers of the sexual, goes well beyond her stage performances. "You keep your hands where I can see them," Jean says, quite outrageously, to Mark (he may be a disabled man but he's a grown disabled man) when he takes a bath. "Where have you been?" she asks Tim at another point, when he comes home late at night from a tryst with Jill. "Out and about," he says with a shrug. "I know what's ‘out and about', Tim," she says, "and it's not pretty."

Jean has, in other words, a terrible stiffness of spirit. You can almost hear the creaking of her bones as she resists the secret lushness of suburban existence. She does not welcome the outside world, as Jill so enthusiastically does, as Tim so desperately wants to. Jean's own failed relationships have shut her down, so she - inadvertently or otherwise - tries to keep her sons from entering into any of their own. Even Mark's flirtation with the Down-syndrome girl at the sheltered workshop is sabotaged by this woman on the verge of an identity breakdown.

Clubland shares some texture and tonality with American Beauty, a film that also explores, with similarly wry compassion, the plight and the cost of white-knuckling one's way through life. But it also allows us to revel in the innocence and urgency of the young lovers in lust. The fumbling efforts to lose Tim's virginity (very much a team effort, and they're a losing team for a while) are endearing. It's a funny and lovely moment when, on the night of their disastrous first sexual attempt - "You've done it before, right? You're across the basics?" - Jill discovers he's a virgin. From the awkward and stilted conversation on their first date through to their eventually successful lovemaking, we are wholeheartedly with them; there's an uncluttered glow to their journey through the film. And yet Jill is also a worthy opponent for the dominant Jean. While Jean is all passive-aggression and deflection ("Never mind me, then"), Jill, for all her apparent simplicity, has the bluntness and bull-headedness to effect real change. When Jean drags Tim onto the stage as one of the audience stooges in another tawdry club and then dresses him in drag, Jill, rather than Tim, sees clearly the humiliation and dysfunction that is being played out. "The woman is a fucking nightmare," she says. "What is her problem?"

Warner Independent liked Clubland enough to buy it at Sundance for US$4 million, and it will be the first Australian film ever to get a coveted 4 July launch in New York and Los Angeles, before opening in a further 70 cities. (Quite unnecessarily, the Yanks are changing the title to Introducing the Dwights, proof either of corporate Hollywood's deep fear of intelligence or its assumption that it is not to be found in American filmgoers.) Locally, we can only hope for great success for such an exuberant and generous, intelligent and free-spirited comedy. We can hope for the longevity - or, God forbid, the box-office returns - of a Muriel's Wedding. One of the things that gives Muriel's Wedding that longevity, its fond place in Australia's cultural imagination, is the way in which small lives become big ones in good drama. Clubland, too, is an example of that. Get the drama right, and the rest more readily falls into place.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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