Lonely Hearts Review

In Memoriam Wendy Hughes (29 July 1952-8 March 2014)

Peter (Norman Kaye), just short of his fiftieth birthday, lives with his mother. Patricia (Wendy Hughes) is a shy bank teller of thirty who has finally moved into her own apartments after living with her parents, who stifle her in the name of love. When Peter's mother dies, he joins a dating agency and through that meets Patricia. There's certainly a connection there, but things certainly don't run smoothly...

Paul Cox was born in the Netherlands in 1940. He came to Melbourne first on a University exchange programme and then emigrated to Australia in 1965. During the 1970s, he made a quantity of documentaries and shorts, and three feature films. Illuminations (1976, shot in 16mm) and Inside Looking Out (1977) made little impression, and are very hard to see now without a trip to an Australian archive. They did both feature the acting talents of Norman Kaye, who became a regular in Cox's films, including the present one. Kaye did not feature in Cox's third film, Kostas (1979), but Wendy Hughes did, in the first of five films she made for the director. (Kostas never had a UK cinema or video release, nor any television showing that I can trace, but for a while it was available to stream on what was then called Lovefilm Instants and I said a few words about it here.) Kostas attracted notice, and Cox's original script of Lonely Hearts found its way to Adams Packer, a production company run by Philip Adams.

Adams felt that Cox's script was noticeably sombre, and brought in a co-writer, John Clarke, to work on it. While Clarke's forte was humour, much of which was added to the script, the collaboration was such a close one that Clarke says that some of the funniest scenes in the film were Cox's work, and some of the most poignant Clarke's. (Clarke appears onscreen briefly as the handyman working during the amateur-dramatic rehearsals.) During the shoot, Cox clashed with the producer John B. Murray (who had himself previously directed The Naked Bunyip and one segment of Libido, almost a decade earlier) with the result that Cox vowed to produce his own films from then onwards. However, the film was nominated for five Australian Film Institute Awards, for Cox and Clarke's script, Hughes and Kaye for their leading performances and Cox for his direction. The one of the five it did win was the big one: Best Film, in a strong year, beating Monkey Grip, We of the Never Never (also co-produced by Murray) and Goodbye Paradise. This was also the year of Mad Max 2 and The Man from Snowy River, which also featured in the AFI nominations, George Miller beating Cox to the Best Director award for the former.

Lonely Hearts sold abroad, being particularly successful on the US arthouse circuit. In the UK it had a cinema release in 1984, following Cox's next film, Man of Flowers, to the light of British projector lamps. Lonely Hearts a TV showing in 1985, probably (though I don't remember) with the film's one “fuck” deleted. I saw that showing, which was part of one of BBC2's several Australian film seasons from the early 1980s, which were my introduction to Australian cinema. Lonely Hearts had a UK VHS release in 1994 but as of this writing no DVD. As I've mentioned before, only two of Cox's now quite extensive filmography (to date, eighteen fiction features and even a 45-minute film in IMAX 3D, The Hidden Dimension) are available on disc in the UK, while Curzon Home Cinema has seven films available to stream. Other directors who have fallen out of favour in the UK have had at least part of their back catalogues released on disc, so let's hope an enterprising distributor can do the same for Paul Cox.

Lonely Hearts is one of Cox's best films, and a deceptively simple one. It is less stylised than some of his later films such as Man of Flowers and Golden Braid (which was the last Cox film to get UK distribution for quite some time). Cox even avoids the flashbacks he used in Kostas and used in many films later, often distinguishing them from the contemporary scenes by shooting the flashbacks in Super 8mm. Lonely Hearts is like many of Cox's films a love story – as was Kostas, as would be Cactus (which starred Isabelle Huppert) and would be Innocence, with a pair of lovers even older than those in Lonely Hearts. And Man of Flowers is a perverse love story and My First Wife is a falling-out-of-love story, Lonely Hearts is a touching story centering on two people who you would normally never see front and centre in a film, at a time when as now the cinema industry was chasing the teenage dollar. I was twenty-one when I first saw Lonely Hearts and am now the age Peter is at the start of the film. This is a film you do need some years on the clock fully to appreciate.

While there is a solid foundation in Cox and Clarke's script and Cox's self-effacing direction, the film is made by its two lead performances, both rightly AFI-nominated. Wendy Hughes was twenty-nine when she made Lonely Hearts, about the same age as her character. She had begun acting on television as a teenager in the late 1960s before making her big-screen debut in Petersen in 1974. Along with Helen Morse and, later in the decade, Judy Davis (with whom Hughes acted in High Rolling and My Brilliant Career), amongst others, Hughes was one of the key actresses of the Australian Film Revival. Due to her undoubted good looks, she tended to be cast in glamorous roles, epitomised by the AFI Award-winning role in Careful He Might Hear You, her only AFI win out of seven nominations in all. Her screen roles became less from the 1990s, possibly I suspect due to roles for women tending to lessen once they pass forty, but she continued to work on television, with her last credit in 2012. Her casting in Lonely Hearts was questioned as it was so much against type, anything but glamorous, dowdy and shy. Patricia wears no makeup and her hair is just brushed or clipped back. Hughes's performance extends to body language too: not meeting people's eyes, walking hunched-shouldered. Cox and Clarke hint at the roots of her character, in particular her controlling parents, father especially. They don't give her a scene where she reveals some deepseated trauma, as a lesser film might have done. This is one of Hughes's best performances.

Norman Kaye was slightly older than Peter (fifty-three). He was a musician before he became an actor, and Cox makes use of this by making Peter a piano tuner and having him play the instrument more than once. While the film begins with Peter as his mother's funeral, Cox and Clarke aren't sentimental about him: it's clear that he is a user of pornography, for example. Kaye had acted in Cox's first two features – along with his partner the now-late Elke Neidhardt, before she gave up acting to become a theatre and opera director – and acted regularly for Cox up until the 2004 film Human Touch. Kaye died in 2007 at the age of eighty. Amongst the supporting cast, Jon Finlayson steals scenes as the flamboyant play director George, and Julia Blake (another Cox regular) makes a strong impression as Peter's sister Pamela.

Sensitive, poignant but often funny as well, Lonely Hearts is a major film by a director now neglected outside Australia. Lonely Hearts was one of fifty Australian films restored between 2000 and 2005 in new archive prints for the Kodak/Atlab Cinema Collection.

The Disc

Lonely Hearts was released by Umbrella Entertainment in their Filmmakers Collection strand. The disc is a dual-layered PAL-format DVD encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in 4:3, but that isn't the correct ratio. The film was shot open-matte and intended to be shown at 1.85:1, so owners of widescreen TVs could do well to zoom the picture. This DVD is a little problematic in other ways: it's over-dark and over-contrasty. I'm not certain if it was mastered from a 35mm print but it shows the signs of it: that darkness and contrast, which does Yuri Sokol's camerawork few favours, and making for some rather murky shadow detail. There are minor scratches in places and some reel-change marks visible.

The soundtrack is the original mono and is clear and well-balanced. As usual with Umbrella, subtitles for the hard of hearing are absent.

“Taking Baby Steps: The Making of Lonely Hearts” (55:40) is one of those thorough documentaries that are a feature of many of Umbrella's releases of past Australian films. Many of them are longer than the film they support. That's not the case here, substantial though it is, mainly because there are only four interviewees: executive producer Philip Adams, Paul Cox, John Clarke and Wendy Hughes. They discuss the making of the film from inception to release, with Adams making the point how difficult it was to get Australian films into Australian cinemas, who mainly wanted to show American films. Hughes talks about her own role, and all four of them discuss Norman Kaye and the supporting cast. The featurette is dedicated to the memory of Norman Kaye, who died the year it was made. There is a spoiler warning at the beginning.

Also on the disc are the theatrical trailer for Lonely Hearts (2:24) and those for other Umbrella releases: Careful He Might Hear You, We of the Never Never, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Getting of Wisdom.

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