The Sum of Us Review

In the second of two reviews of Russell Crowe DVDs, Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 0 release of The Sum of Us, a funny and moving film about a widowed father (Jack Thompson) and gay son (Crowe) both searching for that special someone. Kaleidoscope’s DVD does its job but no more than that.

Sydney, the present day. Harry Mitchell (Jack Thompson), a widower, lives at home with his son Jeff (Russell Crowe). Jeff plays football, works as a plumber. He’s also gay, a fact that Harry has never had any problem with. Both men are searching for that special someone. Jeff meets Greg (John Polson). The child of deeply homophobic parents, Greg finds Harry’s unembarrassed frankness hard to cope with. Meanwhile, Harry meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy) through a dating agency. All seems to be going well until she finds out about her new boyfriend’s son…

“Mateship”, the friendship between two men, is a prevailing theme throughout Australian cinema. The Sum of Us, adapted from his stage play by David Stevens, is a very good example. For all their attempts to find (sexual) love, the strongest and most sustaining relationship in Harry and Jeff’s life is the bond between father and son. A turn in the plot (which I won’t reveal), puts even greater emphasis on this relationship. On the way to this ending, there’s a lot of humour, in that frank, no-nonsense Australian manner.

Co-director Kevin Dowling directed The Sum of Us on stage in its award-winning off-Broadway run, and here makes his cinematic debut. His co-director Geoff Burton, also making his debut, has been a leading cinematographer since the 1970s. You couldn’t say that The Sum of Us is the most cinematic of movies, especially as it keeps the theatrical device of having the two main characters talk to camera from time to time. Wisely, the two directors have decided that the dialogue and the two lead performances are the most important thing, and that’s what they’ve presented us with, with few frills and without their direction getting in the way of the material.

The two lead actors are first-rate. Jack Thompson is perfect casting as Harry. He was a major star of the Australian film revival of the 1970s, but has worked less frequently since then. In his 70s roles, in particular Sunday Too Far Away (now on DVD – there’s a brief reference to it in The Sum of Us), he became something of an icon of Aussie masculinity. He was perhaps too culturally specific to cross over to international films, unlike fellow antipodeans Mel Gibson and Sam Neill. When The Sum of Us was made, Crowe’s star was rising, though his international breakthrough was three years away. For much of the film he has to act opposite Thompson and he’s quite equal to the task. (As I write this, there’s a controversy about the deletion of Crowe’s character’s bisexuality in A Beautiful Mind. Anyone who thinks that Crowe can’t play a gay character should see his confident, unembarrassed acting here.) John Polson and Deborah Kennedy give solid supporting performances.

The photography (by Burton) is clean and professional without drawing attention to itself. Some night scenes have an overlit, televisual look to them: this is a film that will sit very easily on the small screen. The only exception to this are some flashbacks narrated by Jeff, which are in black and white. In these, Jeff tells of his aunt, who found happiness with another woman for forty years, before age and infirmity forced them apart.

Often funny and finally moving, The Sum of Us is well worth seeking out.

Kaleidoscope’s region-free DVD is like the film, solid and professional but nothing flashy. The transfer is full-frame, which appears to be open-matte. Estimated by eye, the intended cinema ratio would appear to be 1.85:1. The picture is sharp, with only some minor aliasing letting it down. The night scenes look overlit, but I suspect that’s the fault of the source material.

The sound is Dolby Surround (Dolby Digital 2.0). This is very much a dialogue-driven film, and the surrounds are used mainly for ambience, most noticeably in the pub scene where Jeff meets Greg. Unfortunately there are no subtitles at all, and the number of chapter stops is completely inadequate – seven in all.

The main extra is an interview with Jack Thompson, which runs 31:28 and is divided into twelve chapters. The video quality is adequate, but the sound is a little rough: this interview was clearly shot in a public place. This extra is a competent enough run-through of how he came to make the film and his comments on its theme and subject matter, but it’s disappointingly bland electronic presskit stuff. A pity, as I suspect Thompson has a lot of stories to tell. A career interview will have to wait for another day, though.

The remaining extras are standard stuff, though surprisingly a trailer isn’t included. Four reviews are reprinted as text, from Variety, Cinema Papers, Canberra Times and The West Australian. There are biographies of both directors, the writer, producer Hal McElroy, and the four leading actors, all clearly derived from a press kit, as are the production notes. “Distinctions” is two text pages detailing awards and nominations won by the film. Finally, there’s a self-navigating photo gallery. Like the (static) menus, it’s accompanied by the song “Better Be Home Soon” by an unidentified female vocalist: the original, by Crowded House, is the one which plays on the film soundtrack itself.

The Sum of Us has been little shown in the UK, going straight to video on the gay-specialist label Dangerous to Know. (As this is a film aimed at least partly at gay men, there’s the obligatory shot of the central character’s nude backside.) The film has also had a few showings on Channel 5. That’s a pity, as it’s an unashamedly feel-good comedy, and as such is recommended, not just to gay men and their parents, but to broad-minded audiences anywhere. The DVD is nothing special, but it does its job.


Updated: Dec 31, 2001

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