The Monkey's Mask Review

Jill Fitzpatrick (Susie Porter) is a lesbian private eye who’s between jobs and between relationships. She takes on the case of missing girl Mickey Norris (Abbie Cornish), a student who hung around the Sydney live poetry circuit and reads out her own, sexually explicit poems. While investigating, Jill meets Mickey’s lecturer, Diana Maitland (Kelly McGillis) and despite herself finds herself strongly attracted to her. Even when Mickey’s body is found and Diana becomes a suspect…

The Monkey’s Mask is an oddity: a lesbian film noir set against a background of live poetry, and itself based on a novel in verse by Dorothy Porter. Some of Susie Porter’s (no relation) voiceovers are direct lifts from the original novel. It its way, by making the detective a woman and having her fall for the femme fatale, the novel and film is subversive of the film noir genre. As a mystery it isn’t all that satisfying: it isn’t hard to guess who the guilty parties are, and there aren’t quite enough twists and turns in the plot. As a love story of sorts it works much better, with quite a bit of chemistry between the two leads. Susie Porter is a consistently fine actress who hasn’t been seen very much outside Australia, not counting a small role in Star Wars Episode II. Although straight in real life, she’s convincing as a lesbian (don’t just take my word for it: Dorothy Porter thinks so too) and ably carries the film. As for Kelly McGillis, she was a big star in the 80s, but had been scarce on the big screen in the 1990s. Now in her forties, she had reached the age where Hollywood found her difficult to cast, so seeing her in a substantial role is most welcome, even if she had to go to Australia to play it. The love scenes between her and Porter are frank, but filmed without undue embarrassment. (The penis-yank near the end of the film was apparently something of a breakthrough in what the OFLC, the Australian censor, would allow, even for an adults-only rating. The BBFC on the other hand, seemed to have had little difficulty in giving The Monkey’s Mask an 18 certificate.)

Samantha Lang, in her second film, takes a less arty approach than she did in her debut The Well. Shooting in Scope, she and her DP Garry Phillips use a more conventional colour palette, which is less of a distraction from telling the story. They make good use of locations in Sydney and elsewhere, and make the most of the unusual poetry-circuit background. There’s also an effective score from three women who go under the name Single Gun Theory.

The Monkey’s Mask had a brief UK theatrical release and is available on a barebones Region 2 DVD from Momentum. (The Region 1 release, from TVA, only has a trailer for extras.) Lang has since gone on to make L’idole, filmed in France with Leelee Sobieski in the lead, a film that has yet to be shown in the UK.

The DVD transfer is in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s up to Madman’s usual standards, being generally sharp and colourful, with strong blacks. There’s some mild aliasing in some scenes, and some grain in others, but the latter is most likely due to the original filmmaking.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. For the most part this film is dialogue-led with the surrounds generally being used for ambience and the music score.

There are only ten chapter stops, which coincide with the nine named chapters the film is divided into, plus the end credits. While this arrangement is certainly logical, this isn’t really enough, even for a not especially long film like this one. As is usual, and regrettable, for an AV Channel release, there are no subtitles.

This DVD is rather lighter in extras than many Madman/AV Channel releases. There’s no commentary for one, and no step-by-step featurettes on the filmmaking process. But the extras which are there are certainly not negligible. The only appearance of the director amongst them is her short film Audacious, which is in 16:9 anamorphic and is divided into six chapters, running 25:47. It begins with a young woman discussing her sexual problems with a therapist and goes from there.

Dorothy Porter is interviewed by Emma Crimmings, in which she discusses writing the novel and her thoughts on the film. This runs 28:41 and is 16:9 anamorphic. There’s a one-page advert for the novel, which links to a 4:49 featurette of Porter reading from it, again in 16:9 anamorphic.

Next up is a one-page advert for the soundtrack CD, with five short audio-only samples from it, all from Single Gun Theory’s original music. The trailer is in 2.35:1 anamorphic and runs 1:31. As usual there are a number of spoilers here. Biographies are provided of Lang, both Porters and McGillis. Finally there’s the usual “Madman Propaganda”, in other words, trailers for The Bank, The Boys, Innocence and Mullet.

The Monkey’s Mask is an unusual film, well made and acted though it falls short as a crime thriller. Its success as eroticism is up to you. But it’s a rare opportunity to see Kelly McGillis in a good recent role, and confirms Susie Porter as one of Australia’s best actresses. It gets a good DVD release, though not as extras-heavy as some of the AV Channel’s discs.

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