Monkey Grip Review
Nora (Noni Hazlehurst) is the single mother of eleven-year-old Gracie (Alice Garner). Living in Carlton, a bohemian, notably arty district of Melbourne, Nora hangs around with a group of writers, singers and actors. Then she meets Javo (Colin Friels), an actor but also a heroin addict, and they entert a relationship that knocks her life out of kilter.
Monkey Grip, published in 1977, was a very autobiographical novel by Helen Garner, personal to the point that (as she later said) she had adapted it from her own diaries. Ken Cameron, who had made three mid-length films in the 1970s, read the novel and brought it to the attention of producer Patricia Lovell, intending it to be his first feature film. The screenplay is unusually credited: “Ken Cameron in association with Helen Garner”. What this meant in practice is that Cameron adapted the novel and wrote the script, and Garner approved it or made suggestions for improvement. If the characters of Nora and Grace were personally inspired, then Garner's own daughter Alice would be perfect casting in the latter role – and that's exactly what happened.
Funding proved difficult, with no distributor willing to take on a film with subject matter such as this. Then in 1980, the Australian government announced tax incentives which would have a profound impact on the decade-old revived film industry. The incentives, which became known as 10BA, meant that companies could invest in Australian films and write 150% of their investment off against tax. There were some strings attached: the film's Australian content had to be significant and it had to be publicly exhibited in the same financial year as it was produced. This turned out to be very much a mixed blessing. Deadlines caused films to be “bunched” in production, and the demand for crewmembers put their prices up. Too many poor films were financed as tax writeoffs. However, Monkey Grip was able to be made on a low budget with 10BA financing, even if the money running out was a constant worry. It was for budgetary reasons that the film was shot in Sydney, despite being set in Melbourne.
Noni Hazlehurst had acted in television in the 1970s and had had small roles in two features, The Getting of Wisdom and Fatty Finn. She had tested for the role of Angela, Nora's singer friend but Cameron had been so impressed with her that he cast her as Nora, despite objections that she was an unknown. Colin Friels was found in a production of Hamlet. Angela was eventually played by Christina Amphlett, lead vocalist of the Divinyls, and that's the band backing her on screen. They contribute six songs to the soundtrack, which were released on an EP: “Boys in Town” became an Australian top ten hit single.
Like the original novel, Monkey Grip is a “miniplot”, strongest on characterisation and the evocation of a place and time; anyone expecting something more eventful will be disappointed, but there's enough in the characterisations, acting and filmmaking to keep sympathetic audiences held for an hour and a half. The “monkey grip” of the title refers not just to Javo's addiction but to Nora's: hers is to love and the idea of being in love, however unworthy the object might be. Hazlehurst gives a tremendous performance that rightly won her the AFI Best Actress Award that year. Friels is not far behind, ably conveying the charm that draws Nora to him, despite his selfish junkie behaviour later. Their love scenes, unusually frank for the time, have a genuine impact. Alice Garner gives one of the most unaffected children's performances I've ever seen, and her scenes with Hazlehurst are the heart of the film. Alice Garner was AFI-nominated for this role and has gone on to a career as an adult actress, musician (cello), academic and activist. Michael Caton, later known for The Castle has a small role here.
As well as Hazlehurst's Best Actress award, Monkey Grip received four other nominations. As mentioned above, Alice Garner was nominated as Best Supporting Actress, David Gribble for his cinematography and David Huggett for his editing. The remaining nomination was for Best Film, which it lost to Paul Cox's Lonely Hearts. Monkey Grip had a limited UK release (with an 18 certificate – it would be a 15 now) and at least one TV showing but has not been released on video or DVD.
Ken Cameron made two further features in the 1980s, Fast Talking and The Umbrella Woman (aka The Good Wife). At the end of the decade he moved into TV, with the Kennedy Miller miniseries Bangkok Hilton, starring an up-and-coming actress called Nicole Kidman. He's worked in television ever since, which on this evidence is the cinema's loss.
Monkey Grip is released by Umbrella Entertainment as part of their Oz Classics line, in a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The original aspect ratio is either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1. The colours are strong, but the low budget shows in some grainy interior scenes. There are some minor specks and dirt here and there, but nothing too distracting, and some brief pixelisation five minutes in.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and well balanced. Dialogue is clear (just as well as Umbrella, as per policy, have not provided subtitles). The club scenes, with musical numbers by the Divinyls are appropriately loud.
There is no commentary, but instead Umbrella have provided a featurette: “Aqua Profonda” (25:06) is a straightforward piece retelling the making of the film from beginning to end. Interviewees are Ken Cameron and Alice Garner (together) and Patricia Lovell. They cover the funding difficulties, the casting of the lead roles and the film's reception, and have plenty of praise for Helen Garner's contribution. Oddly, Garner herself, in a 15-minute audio interview (with Steve Stockwell) has a different take: although she praises Noni Hazlehurst's performance she says she has only seen the film once and dislikes much of it. (Her later film work includes Jane Campion's debut feature for TV, 2 Friends and The Last Days of Chez Nous, directed by Gillian Armstrong.)
Next up is a video clip (2:54) of the Divinyls performing “Boys in Town” live, clearly many years on from the film's production. The band's music also backs a self-navigating stills gallery (3:23).
The remaining extras are the theatrical trailer (2:55), plus a text page for the novel which leads to a five-page text profile of Helen Garner. The “Umbrella Propaganda” this time consists of trailers for Malcolm, Puberty Blues, We of the Never Never and Travelling North.
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