Look Both Ways Review

The Australian sense of humour is said to be darker than most. Watching Look Both Ways did make me wonder how far that sense of humour would travel overseas. This is the film that beat Little Fish, The Proposition and Wolf Creek to win Best Picture at the Australian Film Institute Awards this year. (As I write this, I’ve yet to see the fifth nominee, Oyster Farmer.) I’m not sure I would have gone that far: though there are plenty of things to admire about Look Both Ways both in front of the camera and behind it, ultimately it comes down to whether or not a romantic black comedy about death works for you.

The film takes place over a hot summer weekend in Adelaide. Meryl (Justine Clarke) is an artist who imagines the worst at any moment. When on a train, she pictures it crashing; when on a beach she imagines a shark coming out of the surf at her; when crossing the road she sees herself being run over. Then when walking home by the railway track, she sees a man being hit by a train.

Also on the scene are Nick (William McInnes) and Andy (William Hayes), a photographer and journalist working for the same newspaper. Nick takes a picture of the man’s widow at the moment she realises he is dead. Meanwhile, Nick has had bad news of his own: a routine check-up reveals that he has testicular cancer with secondaries in his lungs. Andy, who has had two children with his now ex-wife, is told by his girlfriend Anna (Lisa Flanagan) that she is pregnant.

The next day, Nick’s photograph of the dead man’s widow is on the front page. He and Meryl meet by chance…

Look Both Ways has several plotlines which intertwine over the course of the weekend. Connections are made, relationships are formed and tested. When the heat breaks and rain falls, it’s a cathartic end to the story. Ultimately, the film says, whatever shit life throws at us, laughter is better than the alternative.

The film was written and directed by Sarah Watt, a debut feature after several short films. Her script is impressive, with considerable warmth towards characters who could have come across as excessively hypochondriac. It’s a generous script: even a minor character like Meryl’s seven-month-pregnant friend Linda (Sacha Horler) is given set-piece dialogue that’s well worth listening to. Visually the film is inventive too. Sarah Watt’s has worked in animation before this film, and she uses short animated interludes for Meryl’s premonitions of disaster. Nick’s inner life is expressed in rapid-fire montages of stills, reflecting his work as a photographer. Watch closely and you’ll see some quirky details of production design: I particularly liked the guitar-playing skeleton in Anna’s flat. Ray Argall’s camerawork is top-notch, and the film’s soundtrack is inventive in its mixture of music and sound effects..

Look Both Ways was nominated for eleven AFI Awards and won four: Best Film, to Watt for her direction and original Screenplay and to Anthony Hayes for Best Supporting Actor.

Madman have released Look Both Ways on a two-disc set. Given that the film is not especially long, and that the extras aren’t extensive, you could have included it all on one dual-layer disc. However, there is a three-disc set edition coming in September for some A$5 or so extra: I don’t as yet know what is contained in the extra DVD – maybe just the original soundtrack? The DVD is encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer reflects the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 – it’s anamorphic with very thin black lines top and bottom, so strictly speaking it’s opened up a very little, though such fine distinctions will be lost in overscan on most displays. As for the transfer itself, I couldn’t spot any flaws in it, as you should expect for a brand-new film. Colours are vibrant or muted as the scenes demand, and blacks are solid with good shadow detail.

The soundtrack plays a major part in the film’s impact, particularly in the montage and animation sequences. There’s considerable use of the surrounds – and even split surrounds – to convey ambience and directional sound. There are quite a few examples of sounds travelling from front to back, for example the train in the opening sequence, or from right to left, such as a bleeping noise during one of Nick’s montages. The subwoofer adds subtle support to all of this.

The main extra on Disc One is a commentary featuring Sarah Watt, William McInnes, Justine Clarke and associate producer Barbara Masel. This seems to have been recorded at a very low level: I had to turn it up to hear it. It’s a chat between four friends, amiable enough but not outstanding. It’s not the greatest of commentaries but worth listening to.

Also on the first disc are the film’s original theatrical trailer (0:38) and international trailer (2:10). Finally there is “Madman Propaganda” or trailer reel, this time comprising Three Dollars, The Bank, The Brush Off, Stiff and Kenny. One wonders if David Wenham fans would like Look Both Ways as he’s in the first four of those!

Disc Two is single-layered and contains some additional extras. First off is “Living With Happiness” (6:07), a short animated film from 2001 by Sarah Watt – a good choice as in style and content it anticipates Look Both Ways. The director is interviewed next (9:06), a combination of new material and material from 2005 (when she had considerably shorter hair), discussing the film with illustrative clips.

“Looking Closer” (21:35) is a featurette subtitled “an insight into the animation, VFX, editing and music and music in Look Both Ways, which sums it up. Interviewees include Watt, VFX designer Peter Webb, animator Emma Kelly and editor Denise Haratzis and the results are certainly informative.

Also on the disc are two self-navigating stills galleries – one devoted to animation artwork (1:51) and a more standard one consisting of production stills (4:50). If you have a DVD-ROM drive you can access a twelve-page PDF of a study guide to the film produced by Australian Teachers of Media.

Look Both Ways is a character-led ensemble piece, so may well seem slow and lacking in plot for those unsympathetic to such an approach. Some people may find the film’s entire premise morbid and in poor taste. I was reminded of a smaller-scale, lower-key, warmer Aussie take on Magnolia in its sense that ultimately “it’s meant to be”. Whtever, it’s a film that grows on you. After two viewings I’m still not sure it should have won Best Picture (no argument against its being nominated in a very strong year) but it’s an engaging and likeable film whose appeal probably skews older rather than younger.

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