Jeannie (Brenda Blethyn) married an Aussie, John Dwight (Frankie J. Holden), a one-hit-wonder country singer. She left England for Sydney when she married him. Now divorced, with her sons Tim (Khan Chittenden) and the mentally-disabled Mark (Richard Wilson) in their early twenties, she tries to re-establish her career as a stand-up comedian while making ends meet in a catering job. Then Tim finds love in the shape of Jill (Emma Booth)…
Written by Keith Thompson, Clubland (which was released in the USA under the title Introducing the Dwights) is a comedy-drama that has its flaws, but it’s a cut above most others of its type. As ever, it begins with the script: the characters are well-rounded and the film is generous to people who in another light could be quite unsympathetic. There’s no doubt that Jeannie loves her sons, but she also smothers them while selfishly making demands on them. As a result, Tim is a shy virgin at age twenty-one. When he finds love, the film is refreshingly frank (without descending into titillation or PG-13 level coyness) and clear-sighted about Tim and Jill’s sexual problems. While he’s shy and conscious of his own inexperience, she’s forward, leaving a scarf tied to a door handle as code to housemate Kelly (Katie Wall) that she’s having sex. But this is just a front for insecurities of her own: note how she’s always apologising for her supposed ugliness and the also supposed smallness of her breasts.
Foreign actors have been imported into Australian films before. It’s a practice intended to increase commercial appeal to (usually) an American audience, and it’s been going on since the 70s at least. It’s a vexed issue: you wonder, for example, why an Australian actress couldn’t be found to play Meryl Streep’s role in A Cry in the Dark, no matter how good Streep’s performance was. And that’s one of the better examples. There are plenty of far worse ones. Brenda Blethyn, mercifully, doesn’t try to play Australian. She maintains her native accent – sounding like the emigrant cousin of Cynthia from Secrets & Lies - though it’s odd to hear her utter Aussie colloquialisms like “servo”. Blethyn doesn’t gloss over Jeannie’s flaws: she’s self-centered, conscious that her comedic shelf-life might be over, jealous of the much younger Jill’s sexual attractivenss. But somehow Blethyn keeps up with Jeannie, even when she goes into meltdown in the latter stages of the film. Clubland is quite a showcase for Blethyn: not only did she co-write (with Jo Brand) the stand-up material she performs in this film, she also duets with Holden in a creditable version of “Nutbush City Limits”.
Of the other principals, Emma Booth and Frankie J. Holden are solid and appealing in their roles. Meanwhile, given the least showy part, Khan Crittenden quietly holds the whole film together, managing to make his character convincingly shy and virginal without making him offputting or overly geeky. Rather unfairly, he was the only one of the principal cast to be overlooked at the AFI Awards. Blethyn was nominated as Best Lead Actress, Holden and Richard Wilson as Best Supporting Actors, while Booth won as Best Supporting Actress. It’s not Wilson’s fault, but the character of Mark is the film’s weak link. Played by a non-disabled actor, he doesn’t always convince as mentally disabled (cerebral palsy, according to one line of dialogue) and is most often used as rather uneasy comic relief.
Clubland is Cherie Nowlan’s second feature. It’s been ten years since Thank God He Met Lizzie, a romantic comedy featuring early lead roles for Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett and Frances O’Connor, which I found pleasant if underwhelming when I reviewed it here five years ago. Clubland has a greater confidence than its predecessor, even if the pacing is a little fragmentary in places. Most of the time Nowlan’s direction is self-effacing, not getting in the way of her cast and the script. That said, some shots are nicely judged, such as the very last one.
Clubland could easily not have worked, and there are times where it doesn’t. You could also suggest that the final scene tries too hard for an emotional response. The central characters could easily have been offputting, but the film’s warmth does win you over.
Of ten AFI Award nominations, Emma Booth’s was the only win. Clubland received nine other nominations: the three other acting nods mentioned above plus ones for writing, direction, cinematography, costume design, production design, editing and sound. Surprisingly considering all the nominations Clubland did receive, Best Film was not one of them.
Warners’s UK release of Clubland is a dual-layered disc encoded for Regions 2 and 5.
The film’s intended aspect ratio is 1.85:1. Warner’s anamorphic transfer is a little narrower, somewhere between that ratio and full-frame 16:9. Mark Wareham’s camerawork is a little soft, but I don’t doubt that’s intentional. An ultra-sharp look is probably not best for a comedy with romantic elements, not to mention one with a leading lady of mature years. But it’s colourful, with good shadow detail and solid blacks. Just what you’d expect from a brand-new film.
The sound mix is Dolby Digital 5.1, but there’s very little to distinguish this from a monophonic soundtrack. There’s some use of ambience, but practically no directional sound: almost everything is front and centre. There’s an alternative track in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with audio description. There are two sets of English subtitles, one for the hearing-impaired.
There are no extras at all on this disc, but on the other hand it can be had for under £10. The Australian release, from Palace Pictures, is an “uncut” (i.e. extended) version with cast and crew interviews and deleted scenes, but as I haven’t seen that version this information is noted without further comment.