Dan (Heath Ledger) is a poet. Candy Wyatt (Abbie Cornish) is an art student. They are deeply in love with each other, to the dismay of her parents (Tony Martin and Noni Hazlehurst) who disapprove of their bohemian lifestyle. Add heroin to that mix, and you have a recipe for disaster. As Dan’s friend Casper (Geoffrey Rush) says, “When you can stop, you don’t want to. When you want to stop, you can’t.”
Candy, written by director Neil Armfield and Luke Davies from the latter’s novel, is well made and very well acted. But ultimately we’ve been here many times before. It’s the sort of film that goes in for gritty (but “poetic”) realism to disguise the fact that it’s a deeply sentimental story. We’re meant to excuse the central characters because they’re young, good looking and artistically talented – though the latter tends to be taken on trust. And despite the ravages of their lifestyle, which includes fraud and her prostitution (he attempts gay prostitution but doesn’t go through with it) to make enough money for the drugs, they remain good looking to the end. Unfortunately it doesn’t work out like that in real life. And that’s without the pretentious division of the film into three sections, “Heaven”, “Earth” and “Hell”.
Armfield establishes his “poetic” tone from the start with a credits sequence with a version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” over the opening credits. (We hear Buckley’s original over the end credits.) Often using handheld cameras and what looks like a lot of filters in some scenes, Armfield and his DP Garry Phillips create a dislocated, not-quite-real feel that’s certainly appropriate for characters insulated from reality. Neil Armfield had made two previous features, a modern-dress adaptation of Twelfth Night in 1987 and the little-seen The Castanet Club in 1990, with television work in the fifteen years before this film.
Heath Ledger tries very hard as Dan, and the result is one of his best performances as a character it’s ultimately hard to sympathise with. However, the film is dominated by Abbie Cornish, who was so impressive in Somersault and is just as good here. She almost manages to overcome the fact that the film (which is narrated by Dan and squarely from his point of view) views her character from outside. There’s one big exception to this, a scene where Candy confronts her mother and tells her “I’ve been clenching my fists since I was six years old”, an explosive moment that threatens to blow the rest of the film apart. Geoffrey Rush is good fun as Dan’s gay friend, supplier and surrogate father figure Casper. As for Tony Martin and Noni Hazlehurst, they are two of the best character actors in Australia and they give the film a much-needed anchor in their scenes. Anyone who has seen Strictly Ballroom should note Tara Morice in a small role. Writer Luke Davies appears as a milkman.
Candy is a curate’s egg of a film. There’s certainly plenty of talent involved here, but it’s in the service of a storyline that really doesn’t ring true. It looks great but I didn’t buy it.
Candy is unusual for a DVD released by the AV Channel (who distribute titles from Madman, as here, Umbrella and others) in being region-coded - 4 only. It’s transferred in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is excellent. The slightly pastel, soft and lightly grainy look is intentional, and is very well rendered.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, with a 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround) alternative. Dialogue is key to this film, and is clear and well-balanced. The surrounds tend to be used for the music score and ambient sounds, and the subwoofer is on light duties – there’s not much bass to be had, even in the music. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles available, a regrettable policy for this distributor. You can only change soundtracks via the main menu, not via the remote.
The DVD has an audio commentary with Neil Armfield and Luke Davies. The two men provide an interesting chat which covers all the usual bases, including pointing out continuity errors (the scene where Dan writes down the fraud victim’s date of birth) and even a cameo appearance from the director’s dog Kevin.
There are five deleted scenes. As usual, it’s easy to see why they were cut: usually for pacing, and to remove a minor subplot about a vengeful rentboy of Casper’s. The scenes are “Garden” (1:52), “Milo” (0:36), “Sculpture” (0:35), “Casper” (1:54) and “Yellow Jesus” (1:42), with a “play all” function. The scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 16:9 with timecodes in both black bars.
Next up is a featurette of interviews (28:28). Neil Armfield and Luke Davies are listed on the menu but also appearing are Geoffrey Rush, Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish and producers Emile Sherman and Margaret Fink. The writer and director’s comments do overlap a little with the commentary, but the others’ contributions do range wider, including the differences between directing for film and stage, and the casting of the principals. Margaret Fink describes how she discovered Abbie Cornish, then aged nineteen and before she had made Somersault.
“Writing on the Wall: Candy’s Poem in Motion” is a montage of shots from the film, with Candy’s poem (written on the walls of their house) both in voiceover and captioned on screen. Nice, but a little pointless – a one-watch item. The extras are completed by the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. Also on the disc is the usual “Madman Propaganda”, trailers for some of their other releases: Last Train to Freo, The King, Edmond, Hidden, Look Both Ways and 36 Quai des Orfèvres. For those with DVD-Rom capabilities, there is a study guide to the film by Robert Lewis in PDF format.
As I write, Candy has been nominated for eight Australian Film Institute awards, to be presented in December 2006. Some of those I’d certainly go along with, especially the acting nods for Cornish, Martin, Hazlehurst and to some extent Ledger. Best Film is more of a stretch, though as yet I haven’t seen the other three contenders: Jindabyne, Kenny and Ten Canoes. (Candy is also nominated for its screenplay, editing and production design.) We shall have to see. On balance, Candy is certainly worth seeing, though its familiar storyline and sentimentality tell against it. Apart from the lack of subtitles, there are no real problems with the DVD package Madman have put together.