The dark side of 50s Australia is seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Celia, in Ann Turner’s neglected film from 1988. Gary Couzens reviews the DVD from Second Run.
December, 1957. Nine-year-old Celia (Rebecca Smart) lives with her parents Ray and Pat (Nicholas Eadie and Mary-Ann Fahey) in suburban Melbourne. Two events make a big impact on her: the death of her beloved granny and the moving in next door of Alice and Evan Tanner (Victoria Longley and Martin Sharman) and their three children. However, the Tanners are members of the Communist Party and such is the fear of reds under the bed that Celia is forbidden to play with the children there. Also, facing the threat of an epidemic of rabbits, Premier of Victoria Henry Bolte orders a cull and Celia’s beloved pet Murgatroyd comes under threat.
The events of Celia seem on the surface banal, and in a way they are until the end, but from the beginning much of what we see is filtered through the imagination of young Celia. If she imagines that she sees the ghost of her grandmother, or the marauding Hobyahs of a popular fairy tale, then we see them too. At times this is overdone (police questionings done in black and white film noir style), but for the most part Celia balances reality and fantasy with admirable poise.
Celia was an auspicious debut for writer-director Ann Turner (born 1960), but it is one that has suffered some neglect in the twenty years since its first showing. (I saw it at the 1988 London Film Festival.) The script was written four years earlier, and won an award for Best Unproduced Screenplay. Eventually the film was made on a low budget: critics were positive on the whole but the public stayed away. Celia is not an easy film to place in a niche: it might have a young girl as a protagonist but it is not a children’s film. It certainly contains dark and fantastic elements, but it is not really a horror film (though I remember an appreciative review from at least one horror-specialist magazine). It also doesn’t help that Ann Turner’s three subsequent features have failed to have much impact. Only Dallas Doll, a middling retread of Theorem with Sandra Bernhard in the Terence Stamp role, has had a UK cinema release. (I’m hoping to review Hammers Over the Anvil and Irresistible soon for this site.)
The time Celia is set in is not accidental. The parallel between Communist witch-hunts and the Bolte rabbit muster (which resulted in family pets being put down or left in overcrowded zoos) is clear enough. This is the 1950s, and while the tension between outward conformity and repressed desires is not new territory, it’s one that Celia explores with some freshness and subtlety. When Ray burns Celia’s grandmother’s (Ray’s own mother) books, one shot showing the word “Lenin” clues us into granny’s political affiliations. Ray has rebelled against her by taking up conservatism, and there are hints, in Celia’s affinities with her late grandmother, and with Alice Tanner especially, that Celia may rebel in her turn. Other people have commented on the accuracy and nuances of this father/daughter relationship – as I’m neither of those, I’m happy to take their word for it – but it typifies the shades of grey in Turner’s characterisation. All of the major characters take their turn in inspiring sympathy and doing something that might negate it. Ray, for example, is conflicted in finding Alice’s beliefs actively dangerous, yet still being physically attracted to her.
None of this would come to much without Rebecca Smart in the title role. This is simply one of the great child’s performances in Australian cinema, along with Nicholas Gledhill in Careful He Might Hear You from the same decade. Smart had appeared in films already: she’s Greta Scacchi’s daughter in The Coca Cola Kid. It was her performance opposite Bryan Brown in the 1987 TV remake of The Shiralee which brought her to Ann Turner’s attention. She was actually twelve when she made Celia, but has no problem passing for nine – being physically smaller than some of the children she is playing against helps – which is quite an achievement in itself. (My niece is twelve as I write this, and there’s no way she would pass for three years younger.) Rebecca Smart has continued to act as an adult, but has not had a cinema role as good as this. She had a featured role in Blackrock and made an obscure indie called Tom’s Funeral in 1999, but otherwise has acted exclusively on television for the last decade and a half.
At the 1989 AFI Awards, Celia picked up two nominations: Victoria Longley and Mary-Anne Fahey both as Best Supporting Actress with Longley winning. Not to take away from the excellence of both women’s performances, but this does seem misplaced. There was no recognition for Rebecca Smart, nor for Ann Turner as either writer or director. I’d certainly suggest that Celia is better than Paul Cox’s misfiring Island, which was one of that year’s Best Film nominees. (The Best Film winner was Evil Angels, better known overseas as A Cry in the Dark, with Meryl Streep winning Best Actress.) Celia is not even on DVD in its home country, which makes Second Run’s release all the more welcome.
Celia is released by Second Run on a dual-layered PAL format DVD encoded for all regions.
The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced with thin black bars top and bottom: 1.85:1 was the original ratio. The transfer is a little soft, though my twenty-year-old memory of the film isn’t good enough as to whether that was an intended look or not. There’s also noticeable grain, particularly during the end credits. However, the colours seem true and shadow detail is what it should be, considering there’s quite a bit of what looks like day-for-night work in this film. Certainly this transfer is very acceptable, though sticklers for hi-def may demur somewhat.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, which reflects (if memory serves) the original film. The surrounds are used mostly for ambience and the music score. Dialogue is clear enough, though hard-of-hearing subtitles are as always a regrettable omission.
The main extra on the disc is an interview with Ann Turner (13:41), which covers her application to film school (in Melbourne, necessitating an overnight train journey from her native Adelaide). Turner describes how she came to write Celia, the casting of Rebecca Smart and the making of the film. For anyone who might be concerned, she describes how the rabbit-branding scene was faked, something that the BBFC wanted confirmation of before they passed the film uncut. Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery, which runs 2:25.
As always, Second Run have provided a booklet with this release. It contains two essays, one by Sight & Sound and DVD Times contributor Michael Brooke, and Australian academic Joy Damousi. Brooke covers all the bases in four pages, though I think his comparison with Lord of the Flies is a little overplayed. (Published in 1954, it was presumably written a few years before then, so it’s a stretch to call it a commentary on the 50s as a decade of violent emotions repressed by conformity. Also, it has a near-future setting, after a nuclear war. Also, Golding – and more pertinently the Truffaut of The Four Hundred Blows – went on to produce further work which exceeds his debut in quality if maybe not popular acclaim, while so far Turner has not.) Damousi’s essay overlaps a little with Brooke’s, but brings out specifically Australian social references, and also feminist angles in the relations between the female characters as well as the father/daughter relationship which Brooke also highlights. Also in the booklet is the full text of “The Hobyahs” and film and disc credits.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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