The Devil's Playground Review
Australia, 1953. Thirteen-year-old Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is a pupil in a Catholic seminary in Victoria. He is unhappy and is picked on by Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) for episodes of bedwetting. As the boys struggle with the onset of puberty, the brothers have their own difficulties, especially with their vow of chastity...
The Devil's Playground was Fred Schepisi's debut feature, largely financed by his own company, and it was an auspicious one, winning the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. It's a very personal work. As Schepisi did attend a seminary and was thirteen in 1953, it's not difficult to see Tom as an authorial stand-in. But there is more to this film than that: Schepisi extends sympathy to the tortured adults as well. It's the repressive, life-denying atmosphere of the times, and of the seminary in particular, that causes the damage. There's a memorable scene, entirely without dialogue, when Brother Francine visits a swimming pool: Francine's temptation is conveyed entirely through editing and Dignam's body language. But at the same time it's the pleasure that Schepisi conveys: a sensual, non-judgemental delight in the semi-clad flesh on display, beautifully lit by DP Ian Baker, This scene does its job so well that the later dream sequence, of Francine swimming with some naked women, is almost superfluous. On the other hand, the boys' coming to terms with their bodily changes and their awakening sexuality leads some of them into very dark areas.
Fred Schepisi was born in 1939 in Melbourne. He did not do well at school, and had a miserable time at the seminary he attended. When he was sixteen, a careers adviser moved him into a career in advertising. Over the next decade, he moved up in the advertising world, while meanwhile going to the cinema a lot and developing a strong interest in film. In 1966 he set up his own company, The Film House, which became a leading producer of commercials. However, Schepisi always wanted to make feature films, and began preparing The Devil's Playground early in the 1970s. In between whiles, he made “The Priest”, a half-hour segment of the portmanteau film Libido. “The Priest” established relationships with Thomas Keneally, who wrote the screenplay, takes an acting role in The Devil's Playground, and on whose novel Schepisi based his next feature, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. “The Priest” was photographed by Ian Baker, who was a cameraman at The Film House; he went on to shoot all but one of Schepisi's feature films. In its theme of the conflict between romantic/sexual desire and religious vows, it prefigures aspects of The Devil's Playground, and Arthur Dignam was one of the two leads.
Most of the boys in the film were first-timers, though the adult roles were filled by many Australian character actors, old and young. Nick Tate was in England at the time making Space 1999 but returned – on much less than his usual pay – to play Brother Victor, a man given to risking temptation in pubs, escaping just in time and saying, “They almost got me there.” Thomas Keneally, a non-actor, was risky casting as the visiting Father Marshall, brought in to run the brothers' retreat, outwardly affable but capable of delivering a frightening hellfire sermon. (Keneally had studied for the priesthood before a nervous breakdown persuaded him otherwise. He wrote his own sermon for the film.) Schepisi's four children play Tom's brothers and sisters; his then wife, Rhonda Schepisi, was the film's casting director and second assistant director.
There are misfires in his filmography, but I have found Schepisi to be amongst the more rewarding, though often underrated, directors working in the commercial cinema. Even his less successful films can be watched for craftsmanship alone (even Mr Baseball, which otherwise suffers by being a comedy that isn't especially funny, is still good to look at), and Schepisi and Ian Baker form one of the great director/DP partnerships in modern cinema, in Australia and elsewhere. Brian Kavanagh's editing and Bruce Smeaton's subtle score add to the effect of The Devil's Playground. A superficially quiet, character-led film that ultimately packs quite a punch, this film is right up there in a great decade for Australian cinema. Its release on DVD is very long overdue.
As well as Best Film, The Devil's Playground won AFI Awards for Schepisi for his direction and original screenplay, for Ian Baker, and for both Simon Burke and Nick Tate as Best Actor (a tie).
The Devil's Playground is released by Umbrella Entertainment on a single dual-layered PAL format disc, encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The original ratio would seem to be (by eye) 1.75:1, Schepisi's only cinema feature not to be shot in Scope. The transfer is a little soft and grainy, but that's more to do with the way it was filmed, and the stocks available at the time, than a fault of the DVD. Skin tones are a little reddish, but generally this is a very acceptable transfer.
The soundtrack is the original mono, of which little needs to be said except that it is clear and well-balanced. Unfortunately Umbrella – as is policy with their English-language releases – have not provided any subtitles.
Schepisi provides a commentary, which will be fascinating for other filmmakers, or (like me) fans of his work, a little dry and less engaging for the general public. He goes into detail about the filmmaking process, and slips in details of his and his collaborators' (Baker especially) thinking behind certain decisions. For example, I hadn't realised that they were influenced by on religious painting for the composition of the scenes with the Brothers.
“The Devil's Playground: Filmmaking by Faith” (43:08) is another of Umbrella's comprehensive making-of featurettes. As before, Schepisi dominates, but we also hear from Ian Baker, Brian Kavanagh, Arthur Dignam and Nick Tate amongst others. Some of what Schepisi says is duplicated from the commentary, but it's all interesting.
Schepisi gets a solo spot with “Fred on Filmmaking” (39:11). As its name suggests, this interview discusses his approach to directing and the art, craft and process of making films. This isn't specific to The Devil's Playground as he uses examples from several of his films. Schepisi is an engaging speaker but again this is more likely to appeal to those with a specialised interest in his films, or filmmaking in general, than a general viewer.
The extras are completed by a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer (2:24) and two other Umbrella trailers: the simultaneously-released The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
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