October 2011

Arts & Letters

Taking to the woods

By John Collee
Daniel Nettheim’s ‘The Hunter’ and Anh Hung Tran’s ‘Norwegian Wood’

Shot in some of Tasmania’s most breathtaking wilderness, The Hunter (in national release) tells the story of an American mercenary (Willem Dafoe) and his search for the last Tasmanian tiger.

The last thylacine died in captivity in 1936 but surviving black-and-white footage of the beast, plus a convincing computer-generated recreation in the film’s final act, give a real sense of mystery, wonder and authenticity to the hunter’s elusive prey.

An opening scene establishes that a shadowy biotech company wants the animal’s vital parts for cloning, in order to extract some unspecified toxin from the thylacine’s glands. Why it wouldn’t be better to capture the creature alive is a question left unanswered, both in the film and in Julia Leigh’s atmospheric, if emotionally distant, first novel.

In the novel, the hunter spends most of his time with his own thoughts, and Lucy – the recently bereaved woman who offers him lodging – passes much of the story zonked on sleeping pills (an idea Julia Leigh took two steps further in her directorial debut, Sleeping Beauty). Screenwriter Alice Addison wisely gets Leigh’s heroine – sensitively played by Frances O’Connor – out of bed and upright for most of this movie. Lucy’s dazed awakening delivers a moment of pure cinematic magic.

Morgana Davies – last seen in The Tree – adds welcome levity as Lucy’s irrepressible daughter, and the film-makers have added some neat thriller elements to spice up the plot. However, unlike the novel of ideas, the conspiracy thriller requires a certain attention to practical detail and, while the general air of brooding mystery plays well, a number of important questions are left unanswered: how did the hunter manage to bring a rifle and animal traps through Launceston Airport?; why wouldn’t someone pretending to be a scientist fake some proper credentials?; and why would a hired killer give out his employer’s personal phone number? Also, you wonder whether it is necessary, possible or appropriate to give an unconscious female stranger a bath without waking her up.

The spareness of the dialogue is another problem. It’s true that great actors can do an awful lot with a gesture or a look. Young Finn Woodlock, playing Lucy’s taciturn son, delivers a magical performance without saying a single word; in the scenes between the adult leads, though, there’s a huge amount of emotional subtext with little dialogue to anchor it. Lucy’s husband has disappeared but his body was never found. She’s caught between illogical hope, the chance of new love and the dangerous lure of oblivion. Those powerful tensions would add magic to any conversation but she rarely gets to talk.

Sam Neill delivers a great cameo as Lucy’s unrequited suitor, and the local loggers do sullen belligerence well but their own fears of extinction are not examined. Dafoe’s hunter is given no opportunity to speak about the demons that drive him, and the impression of a man with evil deeds to atone for is conveyed only by his impressive facility with sharpened sticks and his fondness for tragic opera.

It’s a credit to the actors and film-makers that none of this spoils your enjoyment of the movie. The music and cinematography are sublime, the directing is smart without being flashy, and the non-verbal chemistry between Dafoe, O’Connor and the brilliant child actors is touching and credible.

The hunter’s final act of mercy and redemption is genuinely affecting and delivers, in the last ten minutes, the level of emotional connection that the rest of the film has been striving for with mixed success. Meaningful silence is all very well but a few extra beats of dialogue could have made a big difference.

Haruki Murakami’s wildly successful Norwegian Wood is another novel of ideas, about a 19-year-old university student, Toru Watanabe, and his quest for love and sexual fulfilment in Tokyo in 1968. It’s brought to the screen by French Vietnamese writer–director Anh Hung Tran, whose The Scent of Green Papaya was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994.

If you want a masterclass in movie eroticism, watch this film. Anh Hung Tran handles his sex scenes with a brilliant combination of visual subtlety and emotional depth. Far from being shy of dialogue, his female characters talk often and compulsively about the act. It’s easy to make that titillating when a beautiful actress (Rinko Kikuchi, playing Naoko) is delivering the lines, but it takes rare skill to make it so heartbreakingly poignant. There’s a scene in which Toru (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) comforts Naoko over her lover’s suicide, and the pair end up making love on the floor of his apartment. Only after the act does Toru realise that sex might have been what she wanted but it’s not what she needs. That particular scene has been reworked many times in life and in art, but rarely will you see it handled better – the breathtaking and breathless ending to the film’s first half-hour.

If only this film worked so well as a whole. As with The Hunter, the cinematography (by Mark Lee Ping Bin) is utterly stunning. The acting and directing are of such a high calibre that individual scenes dwell in your memory: love-struck Toru walking through university in a self-absorbed dream as helmeted student revolutionaries race and swirl around him; Naoko striding backwards and forwards, talking manically about her sexual demons in a storm-tossed field of grass.

The problem lies not in specific scenes but in Anh Hung Tran’s overall approach to adaptation – which is to take the whole of the novel and attempt to put it on the screen. The novel is present throughout this movie in everything from design and dialogue to visual detail and heady student banter. It’s present in the details of Toru’s ever-changing emotional landscape – ingeniously visualised – in which a burst of euphoria becomes a race up a spiral staircase and a paroxysm of masochistic grief is a handful of spiky plants. But even a fairly short novel such as this contains far too much material for a single movie and, in trying to cram it all in, the writer–director has created a beautiful film that is over-long, confusing and, frankly, in the end, a bit boring.

The core plot of Norwegian Wood is potentially a very simple one and it would have made a great film. Instead we get not only the novel’s many earthly and philosophical delights, but also the byzantine mysteries of its plot. This works when you are reading and reflecting, but there is insufficient space in the film for the backstories of all the incidental characters. What we get is the main dramatic events of these peripheral characters’ lives – most of them tragic – which merely gives the impression that all the women in Toru’s immediate orbit are mad or suicidal, or both. Worst of all, after two hours of tears and soul-searching, we are denied the one dramatic event that we really long for – a satisfying resolution.

As with The Hunter, there’s a huge amount to enjoy and admire in this loving literary adaptation; in the case of Norwegian Wood, however, a good forester would have cleared some of the underbrush so we could see the wood for the trees.

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