Hotel Sorrento Review

This review is dedicated to the memory of Ray Barrett (1927-2009)

This review contains a plot spoiler.

Hotel Sorrento is an adaptation of a successful stage play by Hannie Rayson. While I’m not calling it derivative it follows the classic structure of a family of three sisters that did well for Chekhov and others. The Moynihan sisters grew up in Sorrento, a small Australian coastal town. Meg (Caroline Goodall) is now a writer living in London, and her novel Melancholy, which is more than a little autobiographical, has just been nominated for the Booker Prize. Pippa (Tara Morice) is a businesswoman in New York, while Hilary still lives at home with their widowed father Wal (Ray Barrett). When the three sisters are reunited, it's not an easy experience – and then tragedy strikes.

While it’s quite apparent that this is an opened-out stage play – there are some long dialogue scenes, especially in the second half - it’s a well made, very well acted, involving film. It asks us to consider questions of the responsibility of the artist drawing on real people and events for her inspiration, and also questions of whether or not a young country (for those of European derivation at least) like Australia can have its own culture. The film (and presumably the play, which I have neither seen nor read) is unusually structured in that first act curtain – with the tragic event – occurs forty minutes in, with the second act taking up an hour.

The director’s name may come as a surprise. As anyone who has seen Not Quite Hollywood would know, Richard Franklin began his career in Ozploitation, with such films as Fantasm, Patrick and Road Games. In the 1980s he became known as an able director of thrillers. An avowed disciple of Hitchcock, he had the chutzpah to make a sequel to such a classic as Psycho and not to have it disgrace the original. But as Franklin states in his commentary, directors can be typecast as well as anyone else, and he made Hotel Sorrento in an effort to make the kind of character drama a “classier” director (Peter Weir or Bruce Beresford – who both made their first features in Ozploitation – or Fred Schepisi or Gillian Armstrong, say) might have made.

Ray Barrett won his third Australian Film Institute Award (for Best Supporting Actor, following awards for his supporting role in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which is available on DVD, and his lead in Goodbye Paradise, which isn’t as of this writing, and which I haven’t seen). He gives the fine performance you would expect from him, the kind where you hardly catch him acting. However, the film is really an ensemble piece. Caroline Goodall (who is half-Australian) had a few high-profile supporting film roles around this time – such as in Schindler’s List - but takes the rare opportunity for a film lead, ably delineating a not altogether likeable character. Caroline Gillmer, who was in the original stage production, clearly is an actor the cinema could do well to use more. Tara Morice, who had made an impression as the female lead in Strictly Ballroom, is unrecognisable here, acting with a New York accent. Joan Plowright gives an impeccable performance.

But with such a female-centric film, it’s the men who steal scenes off the women. I’ve already mentioned Ray Barrett, John Hargreaves (in one of his last roles before his untimely death) acts beautifully, especially in a later scene where he enters into debate/argument with Meg. According to Franklin, this was a long scene which was originally going to be filmed over two days. But Hargreaves (who claimed to have only learned the lines for the first half of it) carried on going, and Goodall (who had learned all her lines) kept up with him. Hargreaves died in 1996 and Barrett in 2009, and they are much missed in Australian cinema. Keeping up with such distinguished company is the youngest castmember, Ben Thomas as Hilary's son Troy. He was also nominated for an AFI Best Supporting Actor Award, but lost to Barrett. Unfortunately he hasn’t been much in evidence since, and this remains his only big-screen feature.

Geoff Burton’s cinematography frequently glows and composer Nerida Tyson-Chew and editor David Pulbrook make strong contributions. Franklin’s direction is self-effacing but that means he creates a showcase for the writing (Franklin in collaboration with his then brother-in-law Peter Fitzpatrick) and the acting, and the film is the better for it.

Hotel Sorrento was nominated for ten AFI Awards and won two: for Franklin and Fitzpatrick’s adapted screenplay and for Barrett’s supporting role. It had a UK cinema and video release, but not so far a British DVD edition.


Hotel Sorrento is released by Roadshow Entertainment on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 4 only.

The DVD transfer is anamorphic, with slight matting lines top and bottom: the original aspect ratio is 1.85:1. This DVD was released in 2004 and was of a film that was released a decade earlier, so you shouldn't expect a modern hi-def transfer, and this, while sharp, lacks the definition that a HD master would have given it. That said, the colours are vibrant and blacks are strong.

Hotel Sorrento was released in cinemas at the time when digital soundtracks were becoming ubiquitous, and according to the end credits this film had a Dolby Digital (SR-D) sound mix. In the light of that, it's diappointing that the DVD is only in Dolby Surround (2.0) instead of 5.1, though judging by the present mix the surrounds are mainly used for the music score in this very much dialogue-driven film.

Richard Franklin provides a commentary, which he presents as a companion piece to the one for his next film Brilliant Lies, also featuring Ray Barrett, which was released on disc at around the same time as this one. It's a thorough talk-through for a film that Franklin is clearly proud of. He doesn't say much about Ray Barrett, presumably due to his limited screen time, but refers us to the Brilliant Lies track for more about him.

Franklin also provides a commentary for an alternative ending (5:38), featuring a song (for which he wrote the lyrics) performed by Caroline Gillmer. This is presented as audio-only.

Inside Hotel Sorrento (18:34) is a fairly standard making-of piece, featuring behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and film extracts. The extras are completed by the trailer (2:11) and one of the short films from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School that Roadshow have occasionally included on their DVDs. Spring Ball (13:59) was written and directed by Nicole Mitchell in 1993, and is presented in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic.

7 out of 10
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