Little Fish Review

Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney, present day. Tracy (Cate Blanchett) is five years clean of a heroin habit. She works in a video shop and dreams of setting up an Internet café but is bedevilled by her poor credit record. She lives with her brother Ray (Martin Henderson) and their mother Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst). Five years ago, Ray lost a leg in a car crash, for which Janelle holds Tracy’s Vietnamese ex-boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) responsible. Also on the scene are Janelle’s ex-boyfriend Lionel (Hugo Weaving), a former football star turned junkie, and Brad, nicknamed “The Jockey” (Sam Neill), a druglord aiming to turn respectable, and ending a gay relationship with Lionel.

Rowan Woods’s previous film, The Boys (1998), a powerful drama with strong performances from David Wenham and Toni Collette, received considerable attention. Now, seven years later – after directing the second unit on Chopper and some television work, including episodes of Farscape – is the follow-up. Little Fish is an intricate character story, with a crime drama as a subplot. Jacquelin Perske’s screenplay asks the audience to pay close attention, as details of the characters’ interrelationships (the above synopsis is distinctly simplified) are slowly revealed. Woods plays his part, too… the opening shots show a young girl at the seaside. It’s clear enough that this is a younger Tracy, but how this fits in you’ll have to see for yourself. A second viewing may well be beneficial – this review is based on just one – but there’s plenty that’s impressive about this film that’s apparent straight away.

With a cast like this, you’d expect strong acting and you get it. Cate Blanchett gives a finely detailed performance as Tracy, not playing for obvious sympathy. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, but somehow Blanchett has too much natural charisma, star quality if you like, for the role: you can’t avoid the impression of a fine actress slumming it down the social scale. She doesn’t quite become invisible in her role, as Hugo Weaving does: balding and bearded, he’s almost unrecognisable. Sam Neill does his best work for a long time as The Jockey, cast against type, having put on weight and dressed in sharp suits. Noni Hazlehurst is also very fine, and the supporting cast, less familiar to me, are excellent as well. Another plus in this film is the sense of place Woods and Perske convey of Cabramatta, a racially-mixed area nicknamed “Little Vietnam”.

Some may find Little Fish slow-going, and it does leave a few loose ends hanging by the end, but it’s a frequently impressive film aimed at adults, and well worth a look. It won five Australian Film Institute Awards, for Blanchett, Weaving and Hazelhurst, the editing and sound. It was nominated for Best Film but lost to Look Both Ways.

The disc reviewed is the Australian DVD from Icon, which is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. It’s presented in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The colour scheme moves from early vibrancy to become colder and bluer in the latter stages. There’s some grain and some scenes seem to use filters with a softening effect. I’ve not seen the film in the cinema, but I don’t have any reason to doubt that this is intentional.

The principal soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, and it’s also impressive. There’s a lot of directional and ambient sound, particularly noticeable during the school reunion scene at the beginning. For those without 5.1 capabilities, there is a 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround) alternative. Some Vietnamese dialogue has fixed subtitles, but the absence of subtitles for the English dialogue is distinctly regrettable. There are twenty chapter stops.

The main extra is an audio commentary by Woods. This is a consistently interesting and in-depth talk, as Woods guides us through the storyline and discusses his filmmaking choices, particularly the use of lenses, colour and sound design. He talks for the whole length of the film with very few pauses..

Next up is behind-the-scenes footage, which is divided into four sections with a “Play All” function. Each contains interviews with Woods, Perske and the principal cast. This is rather more substantial than the usual EPK fluff and is worth a listen. The sections are “Beginnings” (6:11), “Research” (5:28), “Challenge” (4:58) which discusses Woods’s working methods and “Flame Trees” (3:39), which looks at the song used in the film to striking effect.

Five deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and timecoded. Each scene has an optional commentary by Woods and Perske as to why each was deleted. Many of them add character nuances, and one spells out more than the final version does the nature of the relationship between Lionel and Janelle. The scenes are “Girls’ Toilets” (0:58), “Jonny Comes to the Video Shop” (1:59), “Janelle Meets the Jockey’s Wife” (1:22), “Moss Meets Jonny and Ray” (1:19) and “Nup Nup Nope” (0:18).

Finally there is the theatrical trailer (2:35) and a text-based listing of the contents of the soundtrack album.

Little Fish has just been released in UK cinemas by Tartan, who will no doubt issue their own DVD in due course. (And good for them for making some first-class modern Australian films available in the UK.) That said, Icon’s edition is perfectly good in its own right. I suspect this is a film which benefits from the greater concentration possible in a cinema auditorium, but this DVD is a more than adequate substitute.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:50:51

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