The Rage in Placid Lake Review

Placid Lake (Ben Lee) is the child of nonconformist parents (Garry McDonald and Miranda Richardson)…hence his given name. In an effort to challenge gender roles, they send him to his first day of school in a dress. So Placid becomes an outsider, with his only friend Gemma (Rose Byrne), a child prodigy groomed by her father (Nicholas Hammond) for a career in science. However, once he leaves high school, to the horror of his parents Placid puts on his suit and sets out for a career in insurance. So how will Placid’s rebellion end up? Actually, it’s not hard to guess.

Australian cinema can produce quirky character comedies with the best of them, and this is one such. But while it’s consistently amusing it lacks much in the way of emotional depth. We don’t really get to care for these characters, who don’t really add up to more than the sum of the offbeat touches first-time writer/director Tony McNamara (adapting his own stage play) gives them and hence don’t acquire a third dimension. This is a short film but this is a reason why it feels a little overstretched for its content. McNamara comes from a stage background and worked on the TV series The Secret Life of Us. As a director, he’s clearly influenced by Wes Anderson’s films: Placid Lake shares the measured pace, the semi-formal, almost theatrical sense of composition in the wide Scope format. On this evidence, he also shares Anderson’s affinity with characters who are outsiders, either through eccentricity or through intellectual or creative giftedness. But unlike Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, these oddball characters don’t quite come to life and remain something of caricatures, despite the cast’s best efforts. Ellery Ryan’s camerawork and Roger Ford’s production design add to the sense of a world that’s recognisably ours but at an odd angle.

Ben Lee has been a musician since the age of fifteen, and was probably best known outside Australia as a former boyfriend of Claire Danes. (Danes turns up here in a brief cameo.) The Rage in Placid Lake marks his acting debut. It’s certainly a creditable one. He plays Placid with a light touch, avoiding the traps of self-righteous and twee sentimentality. He’s certainly not overshadowed by the far more experienced actors surrounding him. (Nicholas Hammond is best-known as the 70s Spider-Man and as one of the children in The Sound of Music, while Byrne has been acting internationally, most recently seen on British TV in Casanova.) Ben Lee also performs the song that plays over the final credits.

There’s certainly plenty of talent on display in The Rage in Placid Lake, but the film didn’t quite work for me as well as it should have. It’s a little too derivative, rather too much in the shadow of its influences. But I’d certainly be interested in seeing what Tony McNamara does next. It did however win an AFI Award for best adapted screenplay, with nominations for Best Film (losing to Japanese Story), Best Actress for Byrne and Best Supporting Actress for Richardson.

The Rage in Placid Lake comes to DVD in an impressive Special Edition from Palace (distributed via Fox Australia). Impressive, that is, save for one avoidable shortfall: no subtitles. So if you are hard of hearing, speak English as a second language, have difficulties with (admittedly not very strong) Aussie accents or simply wish to follow the dialogue while listening to the commentary, then you’re out of luck. This isn’t really acceptable, and my overall score for the DVD loses a mark as a result. The DVD is encoded for Region 4, as you might expect. More unusually, it’s encoded for Region 2 as well.

No real problems about picture quality. Placid Lake is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 2.40:1. The picture is a little soft throughout, which may be a stylistic choice, but the transfer copes well with the large blocks of colour in McNamara’s and Ryan’s stylised compositions, blacks are good and shadow detail nothing to complain about.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, a low-key mix that favours dialogue through the centre speaker. Some directional and ambient sounds use the surround speakers, but they’re generally not often called into service, likewise the subwoofer.

The main extra is a commentary featuring Tony McNamara, Rose Byrne and producer Marian Macgowan. If anyone dominates this commentary it’s Byrne with her loud and annoying laugh. McNamara contributes quite a bit as well, while Macgowan’s comments are fewer but worthwhile. The three principals do seem to be getting on well, though there are increasing silences on this track in the latter stages of the film as presumably they run out of things to say.

“Livin’ the Dream” is a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette but if you’re expecting the usual electronic presskit stuff you don’t get it. This is very jokey, and we learn such things as DP Ellery Ryan’s loud pants that he wears on Fridays, and Ben Lee on the necessity for good personal hygiene on long shooting days. This is presented in full-frame 4:3.

Cast and crew interviews follow, running 20:55 in total, again in 4:3. This is more along the lines of a typical EPK – interviews and B-roll footage interspersed with excerpts from the film. Interviewees are Miranda Richardson, Ben Lee, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hammond and Garry McDonald, the last-named without the beard he wears in the film.

After a showing on 27 August 2003 (the day before the film’s Australian release) at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne, Tony McNamara and Ben Lee took the stage for a Q & A session hosted by film critic Lawrie Zion. Did I say this disc had no subtitles? Well, not quite…indistinctly-recorded questions from the audience are captioned. This footage runs 29:04 and is presented in 4:3.

As Tony McNamara says, many DVDs have an alternate ending. The Rage in Placid Lake has an alternate opening. This runs 17:29 in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and has an optional commentary from the director. This isn’t greatly different from the release version, mostly due to the reordering of scenes into flashbacks and some shots not in the final cut. McNamara’s commentary has a good few gaps in it and is cut off in mid sentence at the end.

“Placid Lake vs The World” is a series of six comic strips inspired by events in the film. Self navigate through this extra: each strip has six panels, though one has eight.

The theatrical trailer is very much a potted version of the film and includes many of the best jokes. It’s non-anamorphic, in a ratio of 1.78:1 and runs 2:23. The extras are completed by biographies of the principal cast, director and producer; a stills gallery (all in colour and just for once taking up the full space available in 16:9) and trailers for other Palace releases: Loves Brother, Erskineville Kings, Japanese Story and I’m With Lucy.

The Rage in Placid Lake is a worthwhile film though not up to the ones it tries to emulate. It gets an excellent DVD though if only they’d included subtitles…

7 out of 10
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7 out of 10
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out of 10

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