Sirens Review

Australia, the 1930s. Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant), a young English priest, and his wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) are asked by the Bishop of Sydney to intervene in a local controversy. Norman Lindsay (Sam Neill) has produced a painting called “Crucified Venus” and, fearing protests of blasphemy, Anthony and Estella are asked to persuade Lindsay to withdraw the painting from an exhibition. So the young couple visit Lindsay, his wife Rose (Pamela Rabe) and the three models who live with them in a very open relationship: Sheela (Elle Macpherson), Giddy (Portia De Rossi) and Pru (Kate Fischer). English sexual reticence collides with bohemian openness and Estella is troubled by urges of her own.

Sirens is an attractive, well-made and well-acted and intelligent film, if a somewhat insubstantial one. Ultimately its subject, that of a sexually repressed young woman’s sexual awakening – in a more prudish age than today – is a little too familiar.

This is a fictional story that features a real person. Norman Lindsay’s free-spirited lifestyle, and his relationships with his female models and muses, was the inspiration of a much earlier Australian film, Age of Consent.While that film, based on Lindsay's book, put the artist at its centre, and explored his relationship with one young woman (played by Helen Mirren), Sirens casts its interest elsewhere.

There’s a concept in film theory of the “gaze”. That is to say, very simply, that the camera’s eye, in the hands of the great majority of directors, is not neutral – it has a gender and a sexual orientation, which is for the great majority of films respectively male and heterosexual. There can be few better test cases than Sirens. This is a film simply far less interested in its male characters than its female ones. All four female leads are nude on more than one occasion during the film’s trim hour-and-a-half length, and Duigan and DP Geoff Burton’s lush camerawork give full value to them.. Although he’s ably played by Sam Neill, who has third billing, you can at times forget that he’s there. There is a male nude, as spied upon by Estella, though its inclusion seems to be a gesture towards even-handedness, though Duigan should be commended for lacking Hollywood's usual coyness towards male nudity.

Anthony at times comes across as an ancestor of Hugh Grant’s other major role from 1994, in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which caused him to be typecast (and underrated) for years afterwards. Duigan’s script is clearly not in sympathy with Anthony’s views, but he is allowed to have his say, and Grant gives the role sufficient shadings to avoid too much of a caricature of an uptight English silly ass. At the time most attention was paid to fourth-billed Elle Macpherson, at the time a supermodel – she is alone on this DVD’s cover. But her film career hasn’t really flourished since, and this remains her best film, the naturalness of her performance a testament to her director’s skill with actors. Tara Fitzgerald has the role on which the film's plot turns. This film arrived at a time when she was ubiquitous in British films, though since 2003's I Capture the Castle she's appeared mostly on TV. She copes well enough with a scene where she imagines herself naked in church, the only nude scene in the film that comes over as gratuitous.Further down the cast is an earlyish role from Ben Mendelsohn.

English-born John Duigan began his career in Australia in the mid-70s, initially as one of the “Carlton Group”, named after the district of Melbourne where they were based. He has made films in several genres, not all of them successful, but mostly distinguished by their craftsmanship, such as this one. He appears on screen as the minister in the church scene referred to above.


Sirens is released by Arrow on a single-layered DVD encoded for all regions.

Now here’s a strange thing. I saw Sirens in 1994 at a preview screening. After the final credits rolled, there was a single shot of
The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.
the ship taking the Campions home sinking, in sepia as was the film’s opening shipboard sequence, giving the film a darkly ironic final twist.
. This shot is missing from this DVD release, or at least from the checkdisc I reviewed it from. It’s possible I saw a pre-release version of Sirens, though comments on the IMDB boards indicate that this shot was in the version that was shown in cinemas and possibly on video as well.

The DVD transfer is in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Apart from the opening sequence on board ship, which is in black and white, the film has very lush photography from Geoff Burton, and this transfer does reflect that faithfully. Some of the darker scenes are a little murky. A few years ago this would have been very good, and it's still more than acceptable, but it's just a little too soft.

Sirens was released in cinemas with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, which is the source of the Dolby Surround track on this DVD. However it’s a plain vanilla sound mix which puts all the dialogue front and centre with just the music score using the surround channels. However, dialogue is clear and the track is well balanced. None of the Australian accents are particularly strong, which is just as well as Arrow have regrettably not provided any subtitles.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer (1:44).

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out of 10

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