Last night I went to a preview screening of Tim Winton’s The Turning, presented by director and producer Robert Connolly. The book it’s based on is a collection of seventeen short stories from one of the Australia’s greatest authors, stories set on or around the Western coast of Australia; stories about childhood and parents and siblings and the bush and the sea, all imbued with a sense of dark poetry, a wounded core of regret and loss. It’s a heavy, rewarding read and would seem on the surface to be practically unfilmable as a movie; there’s simply too many stories to be told, and while some are inextricably intertwined, others are only related by theme or emotion. To excise some stories might allow for a film adaptation to comfortably inhabit a two hour running time, but would cut away at the core of the book’s power.
Connolly recognised this, and so The Turning is not a film at all. Not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. Advertised as “a unique cinema event,” it earns that title with an unconventional approach to the cinematic medium. Each of the seventeen stories have been interpreted by a different director; each story has its own look, its own perspective, its own feel. And its own actors – there are number of recurring characters, major and minor, throughout The Turning, but here a character might be played by a freckled redhead in one story, an indigenous adolescent in another, and Richard Roxburgh in a third. This is all, perhaps, a little overwhelming, but the presentation of the “cinema event” accommodates this; its three hour running time is broken up by a good old fashioned intermission, and a glossy thirty-six page program is provided with the ticket.
Much of Winton’s power lies in its specificity – the details of a small coastal town, the habits of Australian in the midst of crippling poverty, the way family members speak and don’t speak to one another – but his strength also lies inhis ability to evoke intense emotion with few words. Both the program and book of The Turning use a fire blazing in the night as their central image, and it’s perfectly suited to the darkness and warmth inherent to his writing, the commingled sense of destruction and rebirth, of reflection and regret. It’s unsurprising, then, that these seventeen directors would tackle each story in very different ways. There’s a wide spectrum of approaches: from straightforward interpretations that recreate the events of the story almost word-for-word to short films that attempt to capture the essence, the emotional core of their story, gliding over the details.
Winton’s writing requires excellent actors to capture his stories’ emotional nuance, and thankfully the filmmakers here have collected some of Australia’s best actors. Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh lend an authenticity to Reunion, a tale of a modest family Christmas and the healing power of a bottle of cheap champagne. Rose Byrne is astounding as Rae in the titular The Turning; glamorous actresses are often asked to conceal their beauty in movies, but Byrne’s performance as a battered, despondent housewife (well, caravan-wife) goes further, capturing the bruised soul at the core of her character. Hugo Weaving demonstrates understated power in Commission (written and directed by David Wenham), which tells the sad story of how Weaving shaved off his beard (there’s a little bit more to it than that). This is only a short list: Susie Porter, Miranda Otto, Matt Nable, Dean Daley-Jones, Callan Mulvey and a host of talented child actors produced memorable performances.
There are seventeen stories to tell here, and not all of them are suited to dialogue and discussion. Many tales aren’t so much a chronicle events as ruminations, and many directors have chosen to present these as such, using voiceovers over related imagery. Justin Kurzel’s take on Boner McPharlin’s Moll has the camera glide languorously over locals sharing their memories of the eponymous Boner. Damaged Goods uses split screen – effectively, thankfully – to contrast a wife’s contemplations of her husband’s past crush with vision of his experiences. The opening chapter, Big World, is the least successful iteration of this formula; it’s a powerful story told, of adolescence and co-dependence, but the power rests solely in Winton’s words, with the associated imagery doing little to elevate the material. The best use of narration is Mia Wasikowska’s Long, Clear View, a wistful reflection on the idiosyncrasies of childhood – the film is indebted to both Amelie and Wes Anderson’s work, yet feels fresh.
Other interpretations are less direct, hoping to evoke the feel or emotion of a story using the power of images rather than words. Jub Clerc’s Abbreviation elides the specifics of Winton’s short story to focus on its essence, the longing and pain and revelation associated with teenage infatuation. Connolly’s Aquifer retells a childhood tragedy, using the dense bushland with sinuous, insidious vines and golden-brown blades of grass as a potent metaphor for the bone-deep remorse at the core of its protagonist. The most unconventional approach is Yaron Lifschitz’s Immunity, where the story is staged as an interpretative dance routine by the Circa Contemporary Circus. It captures the contradictory emotions of rejection and acceptance, intimacy and distance and yet I found it more intriguing than inspiring; perhaps modern dance simply isn’t my thing.
My favourite story, however, did take some inspiration from modern dance. The director of Sand, Stephen Page, is the Artistic Director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre; but unlike Lifschitz’s approach to Immunity, where the entire story is told through dance, Page uses his obvious command and understanding of the human body to capture and elevate a simple story of two brothers. The story lacks any dialogue, instead relying on the strength of its actors (particularly the young Jakory Blanco, who is destined for stardom if there’s any justice in the world) and some achingly beautiful, powerful cinematography to leave an indelible impact on its audience.
Ultimately, this is the effect of The Turning; it would be impossible to leave this experience unmoved. The presentation is not without its flaws – some stories really rely on having read the book to truly appreciate them, and it might benefit from a reshuffle of the order of the stories. In particular, before the intermission, the three most emotionally heavy stories (The Turning, Sand and Family) are told consecutively; this is fine in a book, where the reader can choose their own pace, but it’s a little overwhelming in a film. Breaking these up with one of the lighter stories (either Long, Clear View or Reunion) would’ve better suited the rhythm of this medium. But such minor issues should not distract from an event that warrants the adjective “unique.” The Turning is a significant achievement; a memorable, moving work of art.