Cate Shortland's debut feature has been placed in an unfortunate position – after recently sweeping the board at the Australian Film Institute awards, picking up a record thirteen awards including Best Picture, a stigma is attached to the film well before the opening credits unfurl against a snowy Australian landscape. Such was the critical success of Shortland's film, many international critics have been left disappointed by a picture that received so much hype yet didn't live up to their expectations. My interest in Somersault, however, was piqued after reading an interview with Shortland – who also wrote the film – which failed to mention the film's awards. As a result, I perceived the film as an independent, arthouse film and nothing more.
Well, after finally getting chance to watch Somersault, I can report that it's definitely more rewarding to go into the film with little to no knowledge or expectations. It is not an easy film to watch, rather a picture that is ambiguous and emotionally complex. On the surface there is Heidi, a young sixteen year-old girl forced to run away from home after being caught in a passionate clinch with her mother's boyfriend. Hiding away in Jindabyne, a remote ski resort, Heidi befriends Irene, a local motel owner, renting a flat from her whilst attempting to find intimacy with any male in the vicinity; she yearns for love yet can only find sex, going from one hopeless man to the next until she finds Joe, a local farmhand, and the pair begin a fractured relationship fraught with issues of trust and commitment.
Beneath the surface, however, Shortland examines the varying emotional states that we all go through in life, in this instance seen through the eyes of a young – and very naïve – woman. Abbie Cornish's performance as Heidi completely embodies a character that is visibly damaged, a vulnerable girl who is confused about the difference between her body and her heart, her mind and her emotions. Heidi's journey is an unpleasant one to watch, essentially amounting to self-destruction, but Cornish manages to utterly convince the audience that she is Heidi, blurring the line between actor and character in a way that I haven't seen onscreen since Daniel Day-Lewis' terrific performance in Gangs of New York. Cornish, who in reality is an accomplished actress in her early-twenties, conveys Heidi's sense of isolation – Jindabyne's vast snowy abysses act as a metaphor for abandonment and alienation – and her childlike insecurities (the scene in which Cornish sings a nursery rhyme is particularly noteworthy, however trivial it might sound) with superb skill and aplomb. Shortland's decision to simultaneously portray Heidi as a young Lolita is therefore a strong and striking juxtaposition, which actually created a sense of unease in my mind – even though Heidi is clearly a woman, or at least a developed girl on the cusp of womanhood, witnessing her as she exposes her body becomes a very unpleasant experience.
I gather that many of the events depicted in Somersault are based partly on Shortland's own experiences – there is definitely a sense of realism ringing through the film, from the complex characters (Joe, for example, remains ambiguous and his true intentions unclear throughout the entire picture) to the dialogue that packs a punch or two. However, I feel it is appropriate to also point out a few occasions where Shortland lets the film descend to melodrama, presumably due to her lack of experience (to my knowledge, Somersault and a small handful of short films are her only creative endeavours to date); a good example of this is at the beginning of the film when Heidi and her mother's boyfriend are rudely interrupted, only for the scene to take on an almost soap opera-esque tone. Somersault may be Australian, but there is no need to descend to the level of Neighbours, Ms Shortland.
Critics have accused Shortland of forgetting to include a plot, but I feel it's part of Somersault's charm to be a meandering, slow-burning sojourn through a particularly traumatising period of a young girl's life without the need for narrative action. There is already plenty of drama contained within the film to keep the audience engaged – various character strands emerge at varying points, including a homoerotic subplot that is unexpected and daring in its execution. Thankfully, Shortland resists the temptation to tie up all the loose ends throughout Somersault, instead choosing to show life for how it is – complicated, uncertain and brutal. Ironically, the maturity and restraint that she exhibited throughout the film evaporates during the final few minutes as she makes an attempt to bring closure to Heidi's story – and in doing so, allow the audience a sense of catharsis. Unfortunately, the sentiment that wrapping a package in a nice, neat bow will satisfy an audience's cravings is incorrect and misguided; a film like Somersault is not supposed to be easy or pleasant-viewing.
Above all, the film looks astounding. Robert Humphreys' cinematography is truly deserving of his AFI award, reminiscent of what Fargo could have been like if the Coens abandoned their humour in exchange for cold realism. Jindabyne is a character unto itself, cliché aside, and the various whites, blues and reds take on an almost ethereal quality as Heidi's journey unfolds, acting not only as a metaphor for her own mental confusion – the colours and the snow act as a permanent thorn in her eyes, acting as an obstruction between her and what she really craves, human intimacy – but also as a dazzling visual tapestry. Shortland's decision to shoot most of the film with handheld cameras is also daring, if not a little risky, but she pulls it off with aplomb and achieves a visual style that probably wouldn't have been so compelling with static cameras and fixed angles. Considering Somersault is a kinetic trip inside the head of a turbulent girl, it is apt that the camera should be similarly energised.
Likewise, the film's sound design is excellent. Decoder Ring have provided an atmospheric and engaging score that fits the film well, highlighting moments of intensity, emotion or beauty with notable skill. Other aspects of the film are also as well-executed – the supporting performances are all very good, notably Sam Worthington as the aforementioned Joe. Although I question the AFI's decision to award four acting prizes to Somersault (like I said earlier, it swept the board), there is nothing wrong with any of the supporting performers.
It's a shame that Shortland's debut feature can't go all the way and get a glowing recommendation from me – there are a few flaws and oversights that prevent it from reaching a level where I would concur with the decision to honour the film with the most awards an Australian film has ever won (almost doubling Lantana's haul). Like I've said, Shortland's displays of maturity and cinematic realism are occasionally undermined by horrible episodes of melodrama or the need to seek closure; furthermore, Somersault never truly escapes its low-budget origins, however dazzling the photography might be, and as a result it lacks the gloss finish and higher production values that many other films would possess. As a final criticism, and this is directed at Shortland's script, the danger of having a wafer-thin plot is that repetitiveness could set in – unfortunately Heidi seems to repeat the same actions, or show the same emotions, on separate occasions when once would have been sufficient.
But, my nit-pickings can't deny the fact that Somersault is an excellent debut and a sure sign of things to come from Shortland – with more money, and the benefit of a film's worth of experience under her belt, I wonder where the talented writer/director will go from here; I just hope that thirteen awards for her debut feature won't cause her talent to peak so soon.
This UK R2 disc, released by Metrodome, appears to be identical to the already-available R4 Australian release.
The menus are tastefully designed; navigation is simple.
Considering the budget, this transfer looks very impressive indeed. The film's wide-ranging palette of colours is faithfully reproduced, with high levels of detail and no sign of print damage or digital artefacts. My only slight gripe is the odd instance of aliasing that rears its ugly head a few times throughout the film's duration.
Good, if a little lacklustre. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround-sound mix provided is certainly crystal-clear, with dialogue presented excellently through the front channels, but no real effort is made to create an immersive soundstage by combining the front channels with the rear speakers. The many sounds of Jindabyne, and Decoder Ring's score, could definitely have been used more creatively.
The main extra is "Inside the Snow Dome", a 24-minute making-of featurette that combines footage from the Cannes premiere, in-depth interviews with crew members and behind-the-scenes footage. Shortland, in particular, comes across very well – she's clearly a very talented and well-respected filmmaker with a lot of untapped potential. Unlike most making-ofs, this at least offers some quality insight and information about the production, although I felt it ended a little too prematurely.
Similarly, a 15-minute interview exclusively with DOP Roger Humphreys effectively follows on from the featurette, which is actually a very fascinating look at how a cinematographer works. Humphreys is clearly very knowledgeable and skilled at what he does, and his work with Shortland stretches back to her previous short films.
Moving on, 9 minutes worth of deleted scenes are included, all with optional commentary from Shortland. As is usually the case, this excised footage serves little purpose, other than reminding the viewer that a feature commentary is missing from the package.
Shortland's 1999 short, Flowergirl, is included in the extras as well – lasting for 19 minutes, it's shot in the style of Somersault, telling the story of a Japanese tourist during his last few days in Australia, made all the more harder after he falls in love with the Flowergirl of the film's title.
An impressive theatrical trailer and soundtrack promo round off the disc.
A compelling drama is presented on a very solid disc – churlish criticisms aside, Somersault would make an excellent addition to anyone's DVD collection.