Careful He Might Hear You Review
Australia, the 1930s. Six-year-old P.S. (Nicholas Gledhill), so named as he was a “postscript” to his dead mother's life, is brought up by his Aunt Lila (Robyn Nevin) and Uncle George (Peter Whitford), It's the middle of the Depression and Lila and George struggle to make ends meet. Then Lila's wealthy sister Vanessa (Wendy Hughes) returns to Sydney from Europe and expresses a wish to adopt P.S. and provide for his education and his future. At first P.S. is seduced by Vanessa's luxurious lifestyle. But when Vanessa seeks to have full custody of P.S., the ground is laid for a custody battle.
There had been interest in Sumner Locke Elliott's novel since its publication in 1963. Michael Powell was considering filming it at one point. Joshua Logan (of South Pacific) saw it as a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh. But the film was never made. Jill Robb, who had began in the film industry as a continuity girl and had worked her way up, had just set up her own production company. She, with Elliott's help, bought the rights off Logan, and hired Michael Jenkins to write the script. Robb then approached Carl Schultz to direct.
Schultz, born in Hungary in 1939, had begun his career in Australian TV in the 1970s. He had made two earlier features: a middling children's film, Blue Fin, in 1978, and Goodbye Paradise in 1982. Taking his cue from the family melodramas made by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, he and DP John Seale give Careful the feel of a heightened, dramatic feel, all rich colours in Scope, with a lush – possibly too lush – score by Ray Cook, but pitch-perfect acting prevents the film from going over the top. Also, the principal characters are fully three-dimensional. Much of the film we see through P.S.'s eyes: his first sight of Vanessa, backlit by a window, is of something ethereal, impossibly glamorous not quite of this Earth – which, compared to Lila and George's household in the throes of the Depression, she certainly is. It would be easy to see her as a villain: neurotic and unfeeling, seemingly intent to turn P.S.into a prissy Little Lord Fauntleroy type, but Jenkins's script and Wendy Hughes's performance makes her someone more to be pitied. On the other hand, Lila and George's household is not a fully functional one either. P.S.'s father Logan (John Hargreaves) turns up halfway through the film – drunken and irresponsible, but still capable of delivering some home truths.
All this is seen through P.S.'s steady gaze. One of the reasons why Logan's film failed to happen was the inability to cast this crucial part. Nicholas Gledhill came from an acting background: his father is Arthur Dignam. Aged six when he was cast, Gledhill plays the part with a considerable, spookily precise delicacy. This is one of the finest child performances of 80s Australian cinema, up there with Rebecca Smart's in Celia at the end of the decade. Gledhill was nominated for an AFI Award as Best Actor, losing to Norman Kaye in Man of Flowers. Wendy Hughes and John Hargreaves, the latter making an indelible impression in a two-scene role, won as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, while Robyn Nevin (a distinguished stage actress who later became a director as well) was nominated as Supporting Actress.
Careful He Might Hear You was nominated for thirteen AFI awards all told, winning eight. As well as Hughes and Hargreaves's awards, it won for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design and Production Design. It did well in arthouse release in the USA. In the UK, Cannon gave it a limited release (I saw it in 35mm in 1987 at Southampton University Film Society) and it has had a handful of television showings, no doubt ruinously panned and scanned. It has slipped somewhat undeservedly into obscurity over the last two decades, something Robb is vocal about in the featurette on this DVD.
Although his next film, Travelling North is pretty good (I haven't seen Goodbye Paradise), by the end of the decade Schultz was in Hollywood, to increasingly indifferent effect on films like The Seventh Sign and TV work. It's possible that he may never top Careful..., but that's nothing to be ashamed about when it is in my opinion one of the great Australian films of its decade.
Umbrella's edition of Careful He Might Hear You, in their Oz Classics line, is a two-disc set encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. It captures the strong, vibrant colours that Schultz and Seale use, with good shadow detail and strong blacks. Grain is natural and filmlike.
The film was released with an analogue Dolby Stereo soundtrack, and that's preserved in a 2.0 sound mix on this DVD. It's not the most elaborate soundtrack, with the surrounds mostly given over to Ray Cook's score and occasional sonic stepieces such as a thunderstorm. As this is an Umbrella DVD, it follows their regrettable policy of not providing subtitles on their English-language discs.
The extras on the first disc comprise an effective theatrical trailer (1:02) and four other trailers for Umbrella DVDs: The Getting of Wisdom, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Picture Show Man and We of the Never Never.
Disc Two has two substantial extras. “A Child's Journey from the Page to the Screen” (74:08) is another of Umbrella's extensive retrospective featurettes. It takes us from the original novel through the casting of each part, the film's making and its reception. It has nineteen chapters, which can be selected from an index. The interviewees are Jill Robb, Wendy Hughes, a very grown-up Nicholas Gledhill and, in a 1985 interview, Sumner Locke Elliott (who died in 1991). Inevitably not everyone involved would have been available (John Hargreaves died in 1996, for one) but it would have been good to hear from Carl Schultz, John Seale and more of the cast. By comparison, Hughes and Gledhill go into some depth about the characterisation in the film. Robb is vocal, almost to the point of being defamatory, about the lack of distribution the film received after its successful runs in Australia and the USA. (She's not quite accurate in saying the film was not distributed in Europe: see above.)
The other extra is the complete version of the Sumner Locke Elliott interview (34:29). Elliott talks freely about the autobiographical inspiration of Careful He Might Hear You, his writing methods and inspirations. He discusses his being an expatriate (he moved to New York) and how he could not write about Australia without having some distance from it. This is a very interesting piece. (Another Elliott novel, Eden's Lost, became a distinguished TV miniseries in 1988.)
The remaining extra is a self-navigating stills gallery (5:30).
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