The Turning Review
Tim Winton (born 1960) is one of Australia's leading writers, both at novel length and in short fiction. Although he has had two Man Booker shortlistings, for The Riders in 1995 and Dirt Music in 2002, his profile is not as high in the UK as it is in his home country, but there it is high indeed. He has won the Miles Franklin Award, one of the most prestigious Australian literary awards, four times, more often than any other writer. One of those four winning novels, Cloudstreet is frequently taught in schools. Inevitably film interest followed. His novel That Eye, The Sky and novella In the Winter Dark were filmed in 1994 and 1998 respectively. Cloudstreet became a television miniseries in 2011, which I reviewed here.
The Turning is an unusual film. Portmanteau features are nothing new, but their components have usually been linked by genre than by anything else. An Australian example from early in the country's Seventies film revival is Libido, which took advantage of the relaxation of censorship by compiling four short films on sexual themes. What is much less usual is to have all the separate short films based on works by the same writer, though three such are the British films Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951), all based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham, who introduced the films in person, and who was a household name in Britain at the time. Winton doesn't go so far as doing that here, though he does make an appearance in vocal form. However, the film is an adaptation of all seventeen stories in his 2005 collection The Turning, each with a different director. In fact there are eighteen short films here, as the film takes fidelity to its source to a new level by making the first film an adaptation of the book's epigraph, from T.S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday", read by Colin Friels.
Some of the stories in Winton's collection had been previously published and others were original to the book. They range from quite short to the lower end of novella-length. As per the title, they all depict turning points in their characters' lives. They are also linked in that certain characters recur, seen at different points in their lives, though this may escape film viewers given that each episode has a different cast, and are set in the same community in Winton's native Western Australia. The stories use a variety of techniques: first, third and second person, past and present tense. In the first story after the epigraph, "Big World", a first-person, present-tense narration of Davo (James Fraser) about a last day of freedom with his mate Biggie (Henri Phillips) gives way at the end to a flashforward (and Fraser's voiceover gives way to that of Tim Winton himself) to Davo's later life which puts the story up to that point into poignant contrast.
The film was devised by Robert Connolly, who also directed the segment "Aquifer". The directors include several younger names, and those whose previous films I've reviewed for this site include Jonathan auf der Heide (Van Diemen's Land), Tony Ayres (Walking on Water), Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) as well as Connolly himself (The Bank, Balibo) and some I haven't, including Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) and Claire McCarthy (Cross Life, The Waiting City). In addition there are several first-timers, including previous casting director Jub Clerc, dance director Stephen Page, and two well-known actors making their directorial debuts: Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham. It's notable that the lineup contains both men and women, and indigenous directors as well as white ones, not forgetting one Asian-Australian (Ayres).
Nearly three hours is a long time for a film made up of shorter segments, and DVD may benefit The Turning as it gives the viewer the chance to watch the film piecemeal, which is not possible in a cinema. The results are quite uneven and several of the segments are quite slight. It's hard to avoid the feeling that several of the stories in Winton's collection weren't really filmable, or at least the filmmakers haven't found an effective way to film them. While the majority of the segments are stylistically quite conventional, with some dispensing with dialogue in favour of voiceover or not even that, "Small Mercies" makes effective use of multiple split screens. Kurzel's "Boner McPharlin's Moll" is almost all voiceover with static closeups and Yaron Lifschitz's "Immunity" takes the form of interpretive dance. "Ash Wednesday" is animated using beach sand on a lightbox and features several of the film's characters. Wasikowska's segment, the dialogue-light "Long, Clear View" (from a second-person source story), shows a definite eye and it's to be hoped that she directs again. There are strong performances to be found, notably Rose Byrne's as a battered wife in the title story, which won her the AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress, the only award the film won at the ceremony out of six nominations, including Best Film, which it lost to The Great Gatsby. Overall, a mixed bag.
The Turning is released by Soda Pictures on a DVD encoded for Region 2 only. The disc begins with trailers for other Soda releases, Electricity, Kon-Tiki and National Gallery.
The list of segments in The Turning is as follows:
"Ash Wednesday" Director: Marieka Walsh Leading Cast: Colin Friels (voice)
"Big World" Director: Warwick Thornton Leading Cast: James Fraser, Henri Phillips
"Abbreviation" Director: Jub Clerc Leading Cast: Joseph Pedley, Cheyanne Pearce
"Aquifer" Director: Robert Connolly Leading Cast: Callan Mulvey
"Damaged Goods" Director: Anthony Lucas Leading Cast: Libby Tanner, Dougie Baldwin, Taylor Ferguson
"Small Mercies" Director: Rhys Graham Leading Cast: Oscar Redding, Mirrah Foulkes, Finn Woodlock
"On Her Knees" Director: Ashlee Page Leading Cast: Susie Porter, Harrison Gilbertson
"Cockleshell" Director: Tony Ayres Leading Cast: Toby Wallace, Brenna Harding
"The Turning" Director: Claire McCarthy Leading Cast: Rose Byrne, Miranda Otto, Matt Noble, Myles Pollard
"Sand" Director: Stephen Page Leading Cast: Jakory Blanco, Jarli-Russell Blanco, Waangenga Blanco
"Family" Director: Shaun Gladwell Leading Cast: Meyne Wyatt, Wayne Blair
"Long, Clear View" Director: Mia Wasikowska Leading Cast: Matthew Shanley, James Saunders, Di Adams
"Reunion" Director: Simon Stone Leading Cast: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Robyn Nevin
"Commission" Director: David Wenham Leading Cast: Hugo Weaving, Josh McConville
"Fog" Director: Jonathan auf der Heide Leading Cast: Dean Daly-Jones, Eva Lazzaro
"Boner McPharlin's Moll" Director: Justin Kurzel Leading Cast: Louise Harris, Corey Koblauch
"Immunity" Director: Yaron Lifschitz Leading Cast: Kimberley Rossi, Casey Douglas,
"Defender" Director: Ian Meadows Leading Cast: "Dan Wyllie, Kate Mulvany
This is the full-length version of The Turning, running 172:15 with PAL speed-up. There have been at least two shorter versions. One of the production partners was Australia's ABC television, and for its showing there in 2014 the film was shortened to half its length, comprising eight stories in a different order ("Reunion", "Aquifer", "On Her Knees", "The Turning", "Long, Clear View", "Commission", "Cockleshell", "Sand") with the remaining nine made available by ABC online. The version given a very limited release in UK cinemas in 2015 ran for 107 minutes and comprised the following nine stories: "Ash Wednesday", "Reunion", "Commission", "The Turning", "Aquifer", "Cockleshell", "Sand", "Long, Clear View", "Boner McPharlin's Moll", "Big World".
The Turning was shot in a variety of formats, most of the stories being digitally-captured but at least two shot on 16mm film: "Long, Clear View" and "Boner McPharlin's Moll". As DP Stefan Duscio mentions in his commentary on the former, those two shorts were the among the last films to be shot on celluloid in Australia as the Deluxe lab in Sydney closed down a week later (April 2013), which will be sad news to several reading this. It's very likely that all or almost all cinema showings would have been of a DCP though. The DVD transfer is for the most part in the ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, opened up a little from the intended 1.85:1. "Boner McPharlin's Moll" us matted into 1.85:1. Three segments were shot in Scope and are in the ratio of 2.40:1: "Abbreviation", "Cockleshell" and "Commission". As this is a production that (other than the film-shot segments) has been digital from start to finish, you'd expect it to look pretty much pristine, and although I have not seen this film in a cinema I have no reason to doubt that it is.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 with a Dolby Surround (2.0) audio-descriptive track. The main track is mostly front-and-centre with the directional speakers and surrounds used mainly for ambience and music scores. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available for this English-language film.
The extras begin with a commentary, or rather eighteen separate commentaries. All feature the director except "Long, Clear View" feature the director (as mentioned above, DP Stefan Duscio does the honours instead). The commentary for "Small Mercies" is moderated by producer Philippa Campey and also features Duscio again, production designer Zohie Castellano as well as director Rhys Graham. Actor Harrison Gilbertson contributes to the commentary for "On Her Knees", and DP Denson Baker (married to director Claire McCarthy) does so on that for "The Turning". Given the short space of time for some of these segments – some are around five minutes long – many don't get to say very much. The two DPs inevitably fill in with more technical material. As with the film as a whole, these may be better listened to piecemeal, as I did when writing this review, than trying to listen to all of them one after the other.
Next up are four short featurettes: "The Directors" (3:14), "Directors on Locations" (2:56), "Directors on Winton's Work" (2:30) and "Directors and Their Turning Points" (3:03). As you can see from the running times, these aren't very detailed, though there is interesting information to be had. The featurettes are a mix of interviews and on-set footage. Finally on the disc is the theatrical trailer (1:54).