Little Fish Review
Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney, present day. Tracy (Cate Blanchett) is five years clean of a heroin habit. She works in a video shop and dreams of setting up an Internet café but is bedevilled by her poor credit record. She lives with her brother Ray (Martin Henderson) and their mother Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst). Five years ago, Ray lost a leg in a car crash, for which Janelle holds Tracy’s Vietnamese ex-boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen) responsible. Also on the scene are Janelle’s ex-boyfriend Lionel (Hugo Weaving), a former football star turned junkie, and Brad, nicknamed “The Jockey” (Sam Neill), a druglord aiming to turn respectable, and ending a gay relationship with Lionel.
Rowan Woods’s previous film, The Boys (1998), a powerful drama with strong performances from David Wenham and Toni Collette, received considerable attention. Now, seven years later – after directing the second unit on Chopper and some television work, including episodes of Farscape – is the follow-up. Little Fish is an intricate character story, with a crime drama as a subplot. Jacquelin Perske’s screenplay asks the audience to pay close attention, as details of the characters’ interrelationships (the above synopsis is distinctly simplified) are slowly revealed. Woods plays his part, too… the opening shots show a young girl at the seaside. It’s clear enough that this is a younger Tracy, but how this fits in you’ll have to see for yourself. A second viewing may well be beneficial, but there’s plenty that’s impressive about this film apparent straight away.
With a cast like this, you’d expect strong acting and you get it. Cate Blanchett gives a finely detailed performance as Tracy, not playing for obvious sympathy. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, but somehow Blanchett has too much natural charisma, star quality if you like, for the role: you can’t avoid the impression of a fine actress slumming it down the social scale. She doesn’t quite become invisible in her role, as Hugo Weaving does: balding and bearded, he’s almost unrecognisable. Sam Neill does his best work for a long time as The Jockey, cast against type, having put on weight and dressed in sharp suits. Noni Hazlehurst (who played the lead in 1979’s similarly themed Monkey Grip and is currently cornering the market in disapproving mother roles – see also Candy) is also very fine, and the supporting cast, less familiar to me, are excellent as well. Another plus in this film is the sense of place Woods and Perske convey of Cabramatta, a racially-mixed area nicknamed “Little Vietnam”. This is a background Woods used in his early short film Tran the Man (included as an extra on the Australian DVD of The Boys), which was the initial seed from which this film grew.
Some may find Little Fish slow-going, and it does leave a few loose ends hanging by the end, but it’s a frequently impressive film aimed at adults, and well worth a look. It won five Australian Film Institute Awards, for Blanchett, Weaving and Hazelhurst, the editing and sound. It was nominated for Best Film but lost to Look Both Ways.
The above, slightly amended, is the review I wrote of the Australian DVD release of Little Fish in July 2006, to coincide with the film’s UK cinema release. Watching it again on the checkdisc supplied by Tartan for their DVD release, my opinion is unchanged. It’s a film that tends to keep the audience at arm’s length – while it’s very well made and acted it may well be a film you admire considerably but do not love.
Tartan’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer seems pretty much the same as the one on Icon’s Australian (Regions 2 and 4) release. It’s presented in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The colour scheme moves from early vibrancy to become colder and bluer in the latter stages. There’s some grain and some scenes seem to use filters with a softening effect. I’ve not seen the film in the cinema, but I don’t have any reason to doubt that this is intentional. A screengrab comparison follows, Tartan’s DVD first, Icon’s second.
Tartan’s DVD adds a DTS 5.1 soundtrack to the Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (Prologic 2.0) tracks available on the Australian DVD. Both of the 5.1 tracks are impressive, but the DTS gets the slight edge from clarity and sharpness. There’s a lot of directional and ambient sound, particularly noticeable during the school reunion scene at the beginning. Some Vietnamese dialogue has fixed subtitles, but the absence of subtitles for the English dialogue is distinctly regrettable.
The main extra is an audio commentary by Woods. This is a consistently interesting and in-depth talk, as Woods guides us through the storyline and discusses his filmmaking choices, particularly the use of lenses, colour and sound design. He talks for the whole length of the film with very few pauses.
Exclusive to the UK edition is an interview with Woods (23:50). This is in the form of questions appearing as onscreen captions before Woods’s answers. He describes the long gestation of the project, beginning with his early short film. Jacquelin Perske came on board later, and her input changed the story from a story of a small-time drug dealer to centre on his sister. Cate Blanchett’s involvement, and input, came rather later.
“Making Little Fish comprises behind-the-scenes footage, which is divided into four sections with a “Play All” function. Each contains interviews with Woods, Perske and the principal cast. This is rather more substantial than the usual EPK fluff and is worth a listen. The sections are “Beginnings” (6:11), “Research” (5:28), “Challenge” (4:58) which discusses Woods’s working methods and “Flame Trees” (3:39), which looks at the song used in the film to striking effect.
Five deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and timecoded. Each scene has an optional commentary by Woods and Perske as to why each was deleted. Many of them add character nuances, and one spells out more than the final version does the nature of the relationship between Lionel and Janelle. The scenes are “Girls’ Toilets” (0:58), “Jonny Comes to the Video Shop” (1:59), “Janelle Meets the Jockey’s Wife” (1:22), “Moss Meets Jonny and Ray” (1:19) and “Nup Nup Nope” (0:18). These titles come from the Australian DVD: they don’t appear on the British ones.
Finally, the Tartan release includes the original trailer (2:12), which strangely enough does not appear on the Australian disc. Tartan’s DVD omits a text listing of the contents of the soundtrack CD. The cover slip that came with Tartan’s checkdisc mentions film notes and a Tartan trailer reel, neither of which are on the disc.
As I said first time round, I suspect that Little Fish would benefit from being seen in the cinema: not for lavish special effects and bone-crunching sound, because there is none of that here, but for the greater concentration on character nuances that this film demands and which a darkened auditorium and a large screen makes possible. That said, either DVD I’ve reviewed here makes for an adequate substitute. Go with the Tartan if the DTS track and the director interview make a difference for you, but the Icon is certainly not far behind.