In cinema, no happy holiday can go unpunished. Wish You Were Here opens with a fast-paced prologue set in Cambodia, a riot of images and colour that views as a contemporary music video: market stalls, pristine beaches, tandem bicycles, blushed sunsets. Four characters – two couples – emerge, enjoying a holiday together. As the sarongs flap and the palms sway, one can almost smell the waft of coconut oil and chilli pork noodles.
First-time director Kieran Darcy-Smith, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife and female lead, Felicity Price, shows one of the couples, Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Alice (Price), arriving home, tense and wired, to their two young children in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The man they’d been vacationing with, Jeremy (Antony Starr), had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared during their stay in South-East Asia. He’s neither used his phone nor accessed his bank account and, after a frantic two-week search, his distressed girlfriend Steph (Teresa Palmer) is soon to return to Sydney.
Darcy-Smith expertly winds up the suspense; it is a rare joy to watch an Australian film with such a tight plot and, most importantly, a second act. As the main storyline progresses in Sydney, a parallel story set back in Cambodia unfolds, mostly from Dave’s point of view. This nervy impressionism mimics well the random process of remembering. As Dave, a professional boat builder metaphorically standing on the deck of a sinking ship, Edgerton delivers the taut, wiry performance of an actor at his peak. With one glance he can variously portray lust, panic, relief or shame. Co-star Price matches him beautifully as his mystified, pregnant wife. Her small, lithe body exudes fragility and yet, as her pregnancy progresses, her character grows more feisty and rebellious, confronting every inconvenient truth. Her frustration at dealing with a surly, withdrawn husband is delivered in a way that is achingly visceral.
Another impressive character is Sydney itself. In Darcy-Smith’s hands, Sydney is ignited into a sanctum of sunlight and ocean vistas, featuring the feminine curves of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, and the hills that rise from Tamarama Beach. When juxtaposed with the images of Cambodia – mostly shot at dusk or at night – Sydney becomes a geographical protagonist and a visual heroine.
One qualm is the casting of Palmer in the role of Steph. Though she photographs splendidly, it’s as if she’s wandered off the set of Home and Away. Her high, monotonous voice grates and in almost every scene one can see her ‘acting’. Still, in the early days of her career, Rose Byrne had the same problem, and that didn’t stop her rising to the middle.
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