Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jindabyne (2006)

Director: Ray Lawrence                               Writers: Beatrix Christian & Raymond Carver
Film Score: Paul Kelley                               Cinematography: David Williamson
Starring: Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne, John Howard and Deborra-Lee Furness

The brilliant short story writer Raymond Carver has had far too little acclaim for his works. They guy’s talent was incredible, writing seemingly banal stories about men and woman in the seventies that, beneath the surface, were rich in symbolism and greater meaning. Of course Short Cuts by Robert Altman was a valiant attempt at adapting his stories, but it was more of a collection of shorter films strung together by a narrative that Carver never intended. Jindabyne takes Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close To Home” and moves the action to Australia. In many ways it’s a much gentler piece than the original story, with more emphasis put on the moral dilemma rather than the callous behavior of the main characters, as well as a very specific Australian overlay of racial tension.

The story focuses on a family living in the southwest corner of New South Wales, just above Tasmania, in a community surrounding a man-made lake that now covers the former town of Jindabyne. Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne are the parents of six-year-old Sean Rees-Wemyss. The film opens with an aboriginal woman, Tatea Reilly, being abducted on a lonely road by an older white man. Then the scene shifts to Byrne taking his son fishing in the lake, and explaining that there is a town beneath it. Later, things about the characters emerge from everyday goings on, first that Linney is pregnant and is clearly unhappy about it, later it comes out that Byrne had an affair a while back, and there is so much tension with the mother in law it’s almost palpable. Linney hates her while Byrne encourages her continued presence in the home. The central event of the film, however, is when Byrne and his friends hike deep into the woods to go fishing. Byrne finds the body of Reilly, whom we have seen being dumped into the river by her abductor, and he and his friends ultimately decide to leave her in the water and continue the fishing trip. Of course this is incomprehensible to Linney and drives a wedge further between them, but also causes racial violence in town because the men were white.

But this is just the bare bones plot. There is much more going on in the film that makes for an incredibly rich viewing experience. Linney is one of my favorite modern actresses and, though she’s done some real clunkers on occasion, her presence on screen is wonderful. Byrne is also solid as the husband and one of the great choices of director Ray Lawrence was not to make them speak with Australian accents. Byrne, in the film, is a former Irish racecar driver and Linney is an American, both of them using their natural voices. The scenery is gorgeous. Unlike the wasteland of the outback in the north that one usually associates with Australian wilderness, the southern tip of the island is quite beautiful and the juxtaposition of that with death, in several forms, is one of the things Lawrence emphasizes. The film doesn’t have a resolution and all of the plot threads are left hanging at the end, though that doesn’t diminish its worth in the slightest. It’s a European style of storytelling that is satisfactory all on its own, but it’s important to know that going in.

One aspect of the Carver story that couldn’t really translate to the screen was that it was written from the wife’s point of view, and her association with the dead girl came about because she felt that in her life she was equally as dead. The one negative I have for the film is that it seems a bit schizophrenic. I can’t escape the feeling that Beatrix Christian, who adapted the setting of Carver’s story to her native Australia, had the makings of an entirely different film at hand had she chosen to go that way. And it would have been a good one. The city lying beneath the dammed lake is never really explored with any satisfaction and could easily have been. The same goes for the sociopathic young girl who has lost her mother, and the relationships between the supporting characters. It could have been a powerful film on its own if done right. Still, she chose to combine those elements with Carver and the end result is terrific. Jindabyne is a fascinating character study of people trapped in all kinds of moral dilemmas and is a fitting tribute to the late, great Raymond Carver.

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