When their mother dies, three sisters reunite in the family house on the Queensland coast for her funeral. Cressy (Rachael Maza) left home to become a successful singer. Mae (Trisha Morton-Thomas) stayed at home, and disapproves of the lifestyle of the youngest sister, Nona (Deborah Mailman). Over the next twenty-four hours, the three women find out a lot about each other they never knew before…
Radiance is based on a stage play by Louis Nowra, who also wrote the screenplay. Its theatrical origins do show: the film is essentially a three-hander (there are only two other credited roles, appearing in one scene each) and most of the action takes place in and around the house by the sea. In essence, Radiance is a female-bonding story, in which secrets are discovered, long-standing pain is shared and voided and the three’s relationship is stronger as a result. What makes the film unusual is not that the three central characters are women but that they are Aboriginal, though ultimately the film doesn’t make a great deal of this. Substantial roles for Aboriginal actresses are hardly plentiful, as you might expect, so for a film to offer three such roles is a rare thing. (It’s worth noting that this film is written not only by a man, but a white man at that, and this is something no-one mentions in the interviews included on this DVD. I’m not suggesting that a writer can’t write outside his or her gender or race, and I’m not qualified to comment on the results, but some discussion of this might have been useful.)
The three actresses all give committed performances – each gets their own setpiece – but Deborah Mailman has the showiest role as the life-loving and free-loving Nona, and won an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress. However, Rachael Maza and Trisha Morton-Thomas are just as good. As Nowra says in his interview, this film has a typically Australian spin on the female-bonding genre: scenes of high emotional drama are defused by a joke, rather than an American-type group hug. Conflict and closeness are well expressed: you can believe that these three are a family.
First-time director Rachel Perkins – also an Aboriginal – is generally unshowy (though a couple of uses of slow motion don’t really work), foregrounding her three lead actresses and generally avoiding too much staginess. Unfortunately, the pace tends to flag after the halfway mark, even in a film as short as this one. Even so, the film is enjoyable for the most part, and worth seeing as a showcase for three talented actresses.
Universal’s DVD, encoded for Region 4 only, is a mixed blessing. Like still too many discs – especially back-catalogue titles – it’s full-frame, further evidence of how resistant Australia has been to widescreen home viewing. Unfortunately it’s not open-matte but pan and scan, from an intended ratio of 1.85:1. (I compared this version with the extracts shown in the featurette, and also with a letterboxed copy taped from Film Four.) In the circumstances I can't recommend that owners of widescreen TV sets zoom the picture to 16:9. However, when the extracts in the featurette are in the correct ratio (though non-anamorphic) and the interviews are anamorphic, you have to wonder why the main feature couldn’t be shown that way as well. With all that in mind, the transfer has strong colours and good blacks and shadow detail (take the opening shot, for example). However, some artefacting (occasional blurring on movement) lets the picture down.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, and it’s a very active mix from the start. The surround is almost always in use, with music, the sound of crickets, and the like, with the centre channel taken over with dialogue.
There are twelve chapter stops but unfortunately no subtitles.
The first extra is the theatrical trailer, which is full-frame and runs 2:22. This tends to emphasise the “sisterhood” theme. A making-of-featurette (15:18) is standard electronic presskit material: fifteen minutes of extracts from the film, interviews with the main participants and some on-set footage. The featurette is full-frame, but the film extracts are 1.85:1 anamorphic, as mentioned above.
The packaging emphasises that the interviews on this DVD are new, rather than EPK footage shot at the time of release. (The only difference this really makes is it allows Mailman to talk about her winning the AFI Award.) The interviews are divided into sections, each labelled with a question: Deborah Mailman (8:45, 8 chapters), Trisha Morton-Thomas (4:26, 5 chapters), Rachael Maza (5:47, 5 chapters), Rachel Perkins (7:43, 6 chapters) and Louis Nowra (7:57, 6 chapters). These are shot on video and, unlike the main feature, are 16:9 anamorphic. Now, why couldn’t the film be shown that way?
Radiance is a film that’s worthwhile to see three actresses get stronger roles that they’re likely to get for some while on the big screen. (Mailman has a smallish role in Rabbit-Proof Fence, for example, and Maza coached the child actresses in that film.) Otherwise, it’s worth seeing if you have an interest in the subject matter, or in stage adaptations, or are simply in the mood for a good comedy-drama.