I’m one of the tragic few Australian film fans who have never seen Lantana. Although I’ve managed to see the first half twice, the whole thing has thus far eluded me, first due to a dodgy DVD and then to illness. One of these days I’ll break this odd curse and see Ray Lawrence’s second film, but thankfully, taking in his latest proved to be smooth sailing, insomuch as an intensely melancholy film can be.
In Jindabyne, Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian transplant a Raymond Carver short story to Australia, which examines the fallout of a remote fishing trip where four friends (Gabriel Byrne, John Howard, Stelios Yiakmis, and Simon Stone) discover the body of a young Aboriginal woman floating in the river. The drama – and trauma – arises from their decision to continue fishing and notify the police later, in spite of their initial horrified reactions. They simply rationalise that nothing can be done for her now. The aftermath focuses largely on the growing estrangement between Byrne’s Irish-Australian mechanic Stewart and his wife, American expat Claire (Laura Linney), who tries to atone for her husband’s inaction by reaching out to the woman’s family and others in the local Aboriginal community. Byrne himself is town between his guilt and his confusion over the logic of his newfound pariah status.
The appeal of Lawrence’s film comes from its refusal to ignore its characters’ indecision regarding their culpability. Their actions are reprehensible, which they understand on a cognitive level, but the script does not place them on an inexorable path to redemption as soon as they return to town. They are muddled over the intensity of their psychological punishment, at their own hands and those of others, and the film is an elaborate demonstration of negotiating one’s guilt in light of an innate sense of self-preservation.
This doesn’t apply to Linney’s character though, who is uninvolved in the fishing decision and is aghast at her husband’s choice. Her journey represents taking responsibility for the actions of those we love, even if those actions call that love into question and their guilt wears away at the relationship. Another theme is introduced by way of her nationality, which concerns Lawrence’s interesting decision to cast overseas Westerners in the principal roles. Shouldn’t a narrative about white Australia falling short in its respect of indigenous beliefs position a born-and-raised Australian in Linney’s role? But perhaps Lawrence feels that this has already been done to a certain degree in Australian film and television, and this new perspective of an American character immersed in Australian cultural traumas when her own history holds similar abuses does illuminate the universality of both insensitivity and humane outreach. But the script makes only incidental mention of Stewart’s Irish origins and none whatsoever of Claire’s American upbringing (her accent is untouched). Is Lawrence leaving the cross-cultural inferences solely to the viewer, or was the script not written with foreign actors in mind, which bespeaks either stunt or otherwise redundant casting.
Regardless, Linney and Byrne’s presence does not distract and certainly doesn’t sabotage the film. Whether it strengthens or weakens the story’s cultural and racial commentary is really up the individual viewer, as is the unexpected decision to depict the lead-up to the girl’s murder and her disposal by an electrician obsessed with the force he works with. He appears intermittently throughout the film as a subsequently silent, almost demonic force of local destruction, and his presence is both jarring and oddly logical – I genuinely couldn’t decide whether I agreed with the choice. He is an oddly ethereal inclusion in this mostly grounded film, but the recurring hum of electricity and the almost spiritual awe or fear it provokes adds a layer of slight magic realism that would benefit from repeat viewings. Jindabyne as a whole turns a basic premise into a complex text, but its primary narrative and characters are emotionally captivating, bolstered by fine performances and a terrific director that Australia is lucky to have.