Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm unfurls slowly, shifting its point of view, drifting effortlessly from protagonist to protagonist, constantly delving into the lost Proustian memories of a crumbling aristocracy, recaptured only at fleeting moments of near-oblivion. There are bubbling resentments, and each character seems tragically aware of their own inability to forgive long-ago crimes that have, by the present day, metastasized into throbbing painful emotional wounds. The only power one can have in this world of small resentments that have grown into outright hatreds is to escape into the comforting, black arms of the ever-approaching death cloud that hangs around them all like an inky specter. Oh yes, and it’s a comedy.
The Eye of the Storm is so adeptly constructed, and moves in such a natural fashion, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was based on a novel, written by Patrick White, the only Australian to have won the Nobel Prize in literature. The film, much more than other literary adaptations, really has the pacing, tone, and psychological realism of a great novel. It is not a story about happenstance or dry plot machinations (indeed, very little seems to happen over the course of the film’s 123 minutes), but the subtle character interplay set in a crumbling ex-pat aristocracy. Charlotte Rampling plays Elizabeth Hunter, the matriarch of a once-great family, who lies decaying in bed, comforted only by memories of beach walks, affairs with studly beach hands, and the glorious theatrical warmth provided by Berlin cabarets and cathouses from before the breakout of the war. Rampling is amazing as usual, playing both the eightysomething ghoul she has become, and the younger fortysomething self she constantly aspires to. Elizabeth passes her days, like a wry Miss Havisham, perfecting makeup, trying desperately to recapture her beauty, even though the only people left to see are her hard-working staff. At the outset of the film, Elizabeth has decided (although not through dialogue) that she is going to die soon. Not by suicide or disease. She’s just declared that this is the next step for her.
Looking on in resentment are her two children Dorothy and Basil (Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush), who have been called back to Australia to, one would assume, watch the grand event. Going back to mummy only stirs unwanted memories. Dorothy only sneers at her mother’s old neglect. Basil flees into the arms of a hot-to-trot young maid named Flora (Alexandra Schepisi, the director’s daughter), and we get to know a little bit about both Basil and her in the process.
Even though it feels like an emotional epic, The Eye of the Storm is surprisingly lightweight. It’s lit like a comedy film, and the jibes and ribbings feel more like tossed-off comedy one-liners than the acidic barbs they could have been. The director has previously made broad comedy films like Fierce Creatures, Roxanne, and Mr. Baseball, but also high mainstream dramas like A Cry in the Dark and The Russia House. The Eye of the Storm seems to play into both his predilections, striking a nervy balance between trifling and outright weighty. In terms of its construction, the film is pretty exquisite.
Sadly, that balance also threatens, at times, to undo it. For every heady moment, there’s going to be a lightweight moment to temper it (see my comment about the punchlines above), to the point where the lightness threatens to lift the entire film off the ground. Hence, The Eye of the Storm might not leave much of an impact. In terms of literary fealty, it’s dead on. In terms of emotional oomph, it ultimately feels slight.
But perhaps that slightness was also orchestrated. This film is one of the first I’ve seen that deals with Australia in a classy and aristocratic fashion, and doesn’t simply focus on the awkward poverty and eccentricity of the wacko locals (think of something like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). The Australian aristocracy, perhaps, is just as bitter, but far more good-natured than its English counterpart. And, having read so many English novels about long-suffering rich women in desperate social situations, a change of tone is, perhaps, appropriate.