Jindabyne Review

Jindabyne is a town in New South Wales that was moved in the mid 1960s to make way for a dam. The old town lies submerged and the children in this film tell each other stories of underwater zombies that will drag the unwary down. It’s an appropriate metaphor for a story where things unseen beneath the surface have a powerful effect.

Stewart Kane (Gabriel Byrne) is an Irishman living in Jindabyne with his American wife Claire (Laura Linney) and their seven-year-old son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss). One day, Stewart and three of his friends go fishing in the hills, when they find the body of a murdered young Aboriginal woman floating in the river. They continue fishing but don’t bother reporting their find until days later. This causes scandal in the town, with protests from the Aborigine community. Claire too is deeply disturbed by her husband’s actions, especially when Stewart seems to think he has done nothing much wrong. Having discovered she is pregnant again and not having told Stewart yet, Claire wonders if her marriage has any future.

Jindabyne (also the location for Somersault, though there is no other connection between the two films) is not a thriller or even a murder mystery. We know who the murderer is from the outset. Instead the film is about the effect of the crime on the community, about hidden attitudes coming to the surface. If the storyline seems familiar, that may be because Beatrix Christian’s screenplay is based on the short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver, which was one of the stories that Robert Altman adapted for Short Cuts. However, transplanting the story to Australia adds racial tensions to the mix. It’s a film of quite a few layers: with some subtlety it explores attitudes of men towards women, and also a clash of religious viewpoints – Stewart’s Irish Catholicism versus the Aboriginals’ spiritual beliefs.

There are directors who began their careers in the mid 1980s who don’t make enough films. Ray Lawrence is one: he waited sixteen years between his first film Bliss in 1985 and his second, Lantana, in 2001. In between whiles, he had became a leading director of commercials. Fortunately, Lawrence hasn’t had to wait as long before making his third feature. And the news is good, because Jindabyne is well worth waiting for.

Gabriel Byrne gives his best performance in years, while Laura Linney is predictably excellent. They’re backed up by fine performances from a first-rate supporting cast: Deborra-Lee Furness excels as the couple’s friend and neighbour, and there’s a sinister turn as the killer from a long-established character actor. Even the two children are well directed and avoid undue cuteness or precocity.

Jindabyne asks more questions than it answers, but it holds your interest throughout its running time, though some may find it too slow-burning for their taste. It leads up to an ending that's maybe a little pat but could have been far more sentimental than it is.

The film was nominated for nine AFI awards but won none, losing Best picture to the Rolf de Heer-directed Aboriginal-dialogue Ten Canoes, which I have not yet seen. The Film Critics Circle of Australia gave Jindabyne five awards, however, for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography (shared with Ten Canoes) and Supporting Actress for Deborra-Lee Furness.

Not due a UK cinema release until May 2007, Jindabyne is released on DVD in Australia by Roadshow Entertainment. The disc is encoded for Region 4 only. The film begins with a warning that “members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are advised that this film may contain images and/or voices of deceased persons.” A similar warning was printed in front of The Proposition and is heard in the film itself during a TV news report of the murder.

The film’s was shot by David Williamson (not the playwright and screenwriter of the same name) in Super 35 intended to be shown in Scope, using available light throughout. This gives the film a muted look in many scenes, but the transfer is sharp and the colours look true, bearing in mind I have not had a chance to see this in a cinema yet. Shadow detail, even in some darker scenes, is fine. Admittedly this is no more than you should expect for a brand new film, but any flaws escaped me, viewing this DVD on a 28” widescreen TV and a PC monitor.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is mostly a dialogue-driven film, but on occasion the surrounds are called into play, with ambient sounds such as the chirping of crickets in exterior scenes. There is an alternative Dolby Surround track. And congratulations to Roadshow for including subtitles. I wish that other distributors of Australian films on DVD would follow suit.

The disc is a little sparing on extras, which leads you to wonder if a special edition will follow, particularly if Jindabyne wins awards overseas. There’s no commentary, and the main extra is a making-of featurette in 4:3 format, “Jindabyne: The Process”.(30:18). This is the usual mix of interviews (with Ray Lawrence, Beatrix Christian, Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney and David Williamson amongst others), on-set footage and extracts from the film itself. It’s notable that, although Raymond Carver’s short story is discussed, no-one mentions Short Cuts.

Also on the DVD are three deleted scenes. These are “Campfire” (2:59), “Garage” (2:04) and “Bathroom” (1:17). All are in anamorphic 2:40:1 and begin with clapperboards. They are not uninteresting, but wouldn’t have added a lot to the feature as it stands. Finally there is the trailer, which is in anamorphic 1.85:1 with 5.1 sound and runs 2:02. It makes the film seem more like a thriller than it actually is. A list of DVD credits can be accessed from the main menu.

Future viewings will confirm or belie my feeling that Jindabyne is a very good film, if not quite up to Lantana (which is one of the best Australian films of the decade so far) then not far off it. Also, after just three films in twenty-one years, Ray Lawrence is confirmed as a major talent. There’s no problem with the disc audiovisually, though there could maybe have been more extras. It remains to be seen what further editions, both overseas and in its native country, will bring us.

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