Eliza Fraser Review

1837. Eliza Fraser (Susannah York) is the vivacious wife of a much older Scottish sea captain (Noel Ferrier). They are shipwrecked off the Great Barrier Reef and are captured by the local Aborigines. Meanwhile, the crew of the ship descend into savagery.

This much is a true story, as Eliza Fraser was a real person. How much of it is true no-one will ever know, as the real Eliza – who earned her living telling her story at carnivals – clearly didn’t let facts get in the way of good stories. David Williamson’s script does the same thing, taking a few liberties with history on the way. At around the same time this film was made, Australia’s leading novelist Patrick White (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973) wrote his own fictionalised version of Eliza’s story in A Fringe of Leaves, not to my mind one of his greatest novels.

Eliza Fraser (sometimes known as The Adventures of Eliza Fraser) is a curious film. It’s certainly not the serious and reverential take on Australian history that apparently some critics expected. Williamson and Tim Burstall use Eliza’s story as the basis of a bawdy historical romp, rather along the lines of Tom Jones. The film mixes genres with abandon, beginning as bedroom farce – there’s a scene where Eliza receives a visit from her husband while one lover is hiding under the bed and another in a cupboard – but adds moments of drama and grim realism, particularly in the scenes of the sailors killing and eating each other to survive. It’s done with a lot of gusto, though. Susannah York looks stunning and seems to be enjoying herself enormously. John Castle and John Waters are fine as the main hunks in her love life, and Noel Ferrier plays the pompous, cuckolded Captain Fraser with an impregnable dignity that never wavers even when he’s among Aborigines and wearing virtually nothing. Trevor Howard makes the most of a smallish role as a gay army captain and commander of a convict settlement who tries to get Waters’s character into bed. Leslie Binns’s production design and Robin Copping’s camerawork are first rate too, though it’s odd to see a historical epic that isn’t shot in Scope.

Eliza Fraser was an expensive film to make, being a period piece with three imported lead actors. Hexagon coproduced it with the Australian Film Commission. It cost A$1,200,000, becoming the first Australian film with a seven-figure budget. As so often with Tim Burstall’s films, the critics sniffed at it, but the public flocked to it…but not enough of them for the film to break even. I can’t trace a British cinema release, though according to the BBFC it did appear on video in 1987 under the title Intrigue.

There appear to be several versions of this film in circulation. The Intrigue video release runs 119:25, which would correspond to around 124 mins at the cinema speed of 24 frames per second – assuming it wasn’t mastered from a NTSC source, in which case PAL speed-up would not apply. The IMDB gives 130 minutes as the running time. David Stratton’s invaluable history of 70s Australian cinema, The Last New Wave, gives 122. The filmography in Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films (edited by Deb Verhoeven) gives 114 minutes as the running time. How accurate these times are I do not know, and it’s entirely possible the film was shortened after its premiere or previews. The version on the DVD runs 112:39, which would correspond to a cinema time of around 117 minutes with PAL speed-up. Given the participation of Burstall and Copping in the production of the 70s Australian Cinema Classics: Hexagon Tribute Collection box set would lead me to suspect that this is the definitive version of Eliza Fraser. There’s nothing on the DVD about any alternative versions however. [Update: just to confuse matters further, the OFLC database has two running times for the film's cinema release in 1976: 128 minutes and, a month later, 126 minutes, plus a time of 130 minutes for its classification for VHS release in 1984.]

The DVD is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1, which seems (by eye) to be accurate, which would mean a cinema ratio of 1.75:1. This would be in keeping with many 70s Australian films I’ve seen, and with all the other films in the box set apart from Stork. Burstall would use Scope later in his career, with his long-planned film of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, which was finally made in 1986. As for the transfer, it looks fine in brightly-lit scenes, sharp, colourful and detailed. Some colours are over-bright, in particular the reds of the soldiers’ uniforms. It gets much softer and occasionally artefacted when the scenes are darker. Some of this is due to the original materials, as Robin Copping had just seen Barry Lyndon when this film was made and was emulating Kubrick and John Alcott’s use of very wide lenses to shoot scenes by candlelight. Shadow detail is lacking in places. There’s certainly grain visible, but it’s quite acceptable. There’s a rather badly placed layer change at the 72-minute mark.

There are two soundtracks on this disc, the original mono over two channels and a 5.1 remix. After four reviews that suggest that the Dolby Digital “Rain” trailer is far more sonically active than anything in the remix, I have to say that just for once Eliza Fraser does make some use of the surrounds, particularly near the beginning. Nothing very much though, and my usual comments about pointless remixes of mono soundtracks applies here as well.

As with the other DVDs in the box set, Eliza Fraser (which is not as yet available separately) is encoded for Region 4 only and has subtitles only for the feature and not the extras. There are nineteen chapter stops.

Once again, the main extra is a series of interviews, this time being with David Williamson, John Waters and Robin Copping. Camera operator Dan Burstall and Bruce Spence (who has a small role in the film) show up without being listed on the menu and the packaging. On the other hand, Alan Finney is listed but doesn’t appear. These are as worth a listen as ever, with Spence’s story of his two days shooting (in which he gets kissed by Susannah York) being quite amusing. This material is 4:3 and runs 16:20.

The other extras comprise a lengthy trailer, in 1.78:1 anamorphic and running 3:50. Filmographies are of Tim Burstall (with the same biography that’s included on all the other DVDs in the set), Susannah York, Trevor Howard, John Castle, John Waters, Noel Ferrier, Martin Harris, David Williamson, Dan Burstall, Robin Copping, editor Edward McQueen-Mason and Alan Finney (associate producer who also plays a small role in the film). As before, there’s a self-navigating stills gallery (2:10), featuring production pictures and some promotional artwork, including a US video sleeve giving yet another title, The Rollicking Adventures of Eliza Fraser. Bruce Smeaton’s score plays in the background.

Once again, Roadshow have included a short film from the Australian Film Television and Radio School. “The Drip” is a quite amusing short written and directed by Nick Tantaro in 1996. It features no dialogue, quite a bit of slapstick violence and a large man in drag. Presented in 4:3, its running time is 7:17.

Eliza Fraser is not Hexagon Production’s finest hour, but it’s an entertaining film that has slipped into obscurity in the years since, despite its cast. At present, it’s only available as part of Roadshow’s Hexagon Tribute box set, but as that is certainly worth having, this is as well.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 02:32:27

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