A City's Child Review
Melbourne. A woman in her thirties (Monica Maughan) lives as a carer for her domineering, bedbound mother (Moira Carleton), who takes every opportunity to belitte her. Then her mother dies, leaving her daughter alone. One day she meets a young man (Sean Scully), but is he all he appears to be?
A City’s Child is a small, modest film, made on a clearly tiny budget, but like many a work in a minor key it lingers in the mind afterwards, and showcases a fine lead performance. It also has its place in Australian film history,
By the 1960s, the Australian film industry was moribund, with the country used as locations for foreign-made films. Any locally-produced fare was shot on minuscule budgets, often based in Melbourne or Sydney, and never troubled commercial cinemas. The production of, and later the enormous local success of, Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob provoked discussion on whether the country could have its own cinema. 2000 Weeks, directed by Tim Burstall, was the first local production to receive a commercial cinema release in over a decade. It flopped both commercially and critically, but slowly the industry began to revive, spurred on by the success (critically if not commercially) of two overseas coproductions, Wake in Fright and Walkabout. In 1970, the federal government set up funding for the nascent industry, and A City’s Child was the first film to receive any, to the sum of $6000 towards a total budget of $30000.
The film establishes its tone from the outset, as we meet our unnamed protagonist and her mother. The woman’s only other companion is a stray kitten she finds and brings inside with her, despite her mother’s hatred of cats. Her neighbours (Vivean Gray and Marguerite Lofthouse) look on and talk about her. Then, when mother dies and is buried, the credits roll, twelve minutes in. The action begins again, clearly moved on a while in time. For much of the first half of the film, this is an almost solo performance from Monica Maughan, as she goes round the house (with clearly no need to work outside it), takes the train, walks into the city centre. At home, she dresses up dolls and talks to them. It’s clear from the outset that much of her life is in her head, and it’s not certain how much of what we see is real. That includes the young man, whom she first meets when he nearly runs into her with his car, but she sees him again, in a train compartment, on the beach. Soon they begin to talk. They become lovers. The film, while not unduly visually explicit, is quite clear on the nature of the woman’s attraction to him, with Scully often shirtless and in one scene just in a tight pair of swimming trunks. But to what extent is he real? That’s something you’[re left to decide, and a final reveal puts our assumptions into doubt.
You have to make some allowances for A City’s Child, some of them due to the straitened circumstances in which is was made. There are certainly some miscalculations, such as an overdone music score and a theme song which makes the film seem more sentimental than it actually is. Sean Scully is fine in what is a smallish role despite his second billing, But at the heart of the film is Monica Maughan’s finely detailed performance, as someone overlooked and dominated, clearly with little self-esteem and retreating into her own fantasy world. Maughan was born in Tonga in 1933 and made her television acting debut in 1962. She continued acting until 2009, with her final role being in Ana Kokkinos’s Blessed. She died in 2010.
Brian Kavanagh (born 1935) began as an editor, and worked in that capacity for most of his career. He edited such films as Long Weekend, The Odd Angry Shot, Fred Schepisi’s episode of the portmanteau film Libido and Schepisi’s first two features The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. He was nominated three times for the Australian Film Institute Award (now the AACTA Award) for Best Editing, winning in 1985 for Frog Dreaming. A City’s Child was his feature directing debut – he has to date directed two further films. As well as producing, he is credited for the story, though the script is the work of Don Battye. This was Battye’s only cinema writing credit, but he was a prolific writer and producer for television. The film was shot in 16mm, photographed by Bruce McNaughton, over four weeks at the end of 1970, with the interiors of the woman’s house being shot in the studio, the rest on location in Melbourne.
In 1971, A City’s Child played in the Edinburgh, Montreal and Chicago Film Festivals and became the first Australian feature film to be shown at the London Film Festival, on 20 and 27 November that year. Kavanagh paid for the film prints and the shipping of them to these festivals, as there was no budget for this. Commercially, the film was released in Melbourne in November 1971. After this self-distribution, the film was picked up for further release, and the Australian Film Development Corporation contributed $5000 towards its being blown up from 16mm to 35mm. However, it never played widely. It did however, receive attention at the AFI Awards, which were much smaller-scale then due to the small number of fiction films being made in the country. A City’s Child won a Bronze Award (the top award then, the Grand Prix, went to Peter Weir’s short feature Homesdale, also a tiny-budget film shot on 16mm). Monica Maughan won the only acting award, for Best Performance. In the UK, following those festival showings, the film appears to have had some commercial distribution (it was reviewed in the Monthly Film Bulletin in March 1977), though without being submitted to the BBFC. (It’s a likely 12 by today’s standards. In Australia it received the advisory M certificate, which is what it would likely receive nowadays.) A City's Child has had one showing on British television, on ITV in the Southern region, on 15 June 1979.
The version being streamed is in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which is surely correct, and what you would expect for a film shot in and originally shown in 16mm. The source material appears to be a film print, as there is damage here and then, especially at where the ends of the film reels would have been, and one very noticeable reel-change cue dot. Given the film’s 16mm origins, it’s inevitably rather soft and certainly grainy. The mono soundtrack is clear. The copy runs 77:09, with PAL speed-up from the original 80 minutes.
A City’s Child is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video (availablility may vary by country) and worldwide from Umbrella Entertaiment. Thanks to Sheldon Hall for the information on the UK television showing.