Gordon (Peter Fenton) lives in a grotty boarding house in Brisbane, his life at a low ebb. Then he meets Cynthia (Sacha Horler) a woman seemingly as damaged as him and a drink- and drug-fuelled affair begins...
Scripted by Andrew McGahan from his novel of the same name, Praise is all mood, the coming together of two wounded characters. The film is pretty much a two-hander. A third character, Rachel (Marta Dusseldorp) at times draws the central relationship into a triangle, but it's a flaw of the film that this subplot and this character are so underwritten. It's Gordon and Cynthia we stay with for most of the running time. They are certainly self-destructive: Gordon smokes despite his asthma. Cynthia's eczema is an obvious correlative to her inner soul-damage, as is her insistent use of sex to make some sort of connection. The latter is frankly portrayed – the 18 certificate is well earned, and this film would land a NC-17 for sure if it were ever submitted to the MPAA – but it's not in the slightest bit erotic. It's a joining together in hurt. First-time director John Curran and DP Dion Beebe surround the central couple with a grimy, dirty world of cheap boarding-houses and parties laden with cigarette smoke. There's a fine score from Dirty Three, a violin/electric guitar/drums trio featuring frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis.
Peter Fenton was a rock singer (with the band Crow) before he made this film. It remains his only feature, though he has made shorts and done work on television. He gives a good performance but the acting honours go to Sacha Horler. This was her third film (following small roles in Billy's Holiday in 1995, which I haven't seen, and Blackrock in 1997) and her first lead. Her performance is quite remarkable. Short (Fenton towers over her) and stockily built, beautiful in a jolie-laide sort of way, it's the type of acting that's, you sense, unafraid to go places many others would fight shy of. She won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress and also picked up Best Supporting Actress at the same ceremony for Soft Fruit. I first reviewed Praise in 2001 for an earlier version of this site and Horler was my tip for the top, as you would have expected Hollywood to beckon after wins like that – and a further Best Supporting win four years later for Travelling Light. Has it happened? Who can say, but the only film she has made which has been widely shown outside Australia is Babe: Pig in the City, in which she has a small role. (She has more recently provided a voice for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.) The most recent film of hers I've watched and reviewed is My Year Without Sex. Unfortunately for the film, she is by far the most interesting of the two lead characters, and the fact that the ending concentrates on him rather than her makes for an anticlimactic closure.
John Curran has gone on to make We Don't Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil and Stone (no relation to the 1973 Aussie biker movie, reviewed here, whose star Ken Shorter coincidentally has a small role in Praise). His debut film is character-led and mood-led to a fault, and is certainly not for the over-sensitive or the easily offended. Also, your patience for the lead characters' self-destructiveness may vary. But it does stay with you, and as a showcase for a great performance it is definitely worth seeing.
Praise was nominated for ten AFI Awards, winning two – Sacha Horler for Best Actress and Andrew McGahan for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was up for Best Film, losing to Two Hands. It had no commercial release in the UK before its original DVD in 2009.
Praise was released in 2009 by Britfilms.tv, as part of a batch of Australian titles. Its reissue in 2011 by Crabtree Films is the same disc in different packaging. The disc is encoded for all regions.
The DVD is transferred in full-frame 1.33:1, which is open-matte from an intended ratio of 1.85:1. The now-deleted Australian release from Siren, also all-regions, had a non-anamorphic transfer in the ratio of around 1.80:1. Either way, the transfer is fair enough, with Beebe's camerawork heavy on bruised oranges and browns for most of the interior scenes. Some softness is no doubt intentional, and the often-present cigarette smoke seems to transfer accurately, but an anamorphic transfer might have given the image more detail and definition. I doubt this film is a candidate for a new anamorphic transfer, or even a Blu-ray release, any time soon, and as the Australian release is no longer current this is as good as you are likely to get. I watched it zoomed to 16:9 and you should too.
The DVD has a Dolby Surround (2.0) soundtrack. This is quite a dialogue-driven film, but the surrounds kick in for the muisc score and the party scenes (which are mixed quite loud) and occasional directional effects such as an aeroplane at the 76-minute mark. There are regrettably no subtitles for the hard of hearing, nor any extras of any kind. (The Australian release, if you can find it, has two trailers plus some text items.)
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