I liked Tim Winton’s The Turning more than most critics. Looking back at my review now, I don’t think I succeeded in explaining why it appealed to me; it’s an assumption underlying my write-up, but I don’t think I made it clear. In part, it’s based in my fondness for Winton’s original anthology, which I’d read not long before watching the film. But I think the unique structure of The Turning – seventeen distinct chapters with a totally different director and style – justifies my appreciation of the film.
Not all of it works. Plenty of the chapters are clumsy in part, or take an approach ill-suited to the material. I love films that are eclectic and idiosyncratic, so the diverse interpretation was right up my alley. Plus, I tend to try and focus on the positives rather than the negatives when evaluating cinema, which is the best way to appreciate The Turning. Forget the bad/average chapters, remember the highlights. Not to mention I’m a sucker for anything involving an intermission.
More significantly, there’s some synchronicity between the choice to distribute the film between different directors, with multiple actors playing the same characters across different stories. The connective tissue between the short stories in Winton’s book were slight and, unless you paid close attention to character names, rarely emphasised. Many of the stories were connected, but those connections weren’t necessary to appreciate the story. Using different actors and aesthetics is a clever way to retain that quality on screen.
The Turning is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray, and while I loved seeing it at the cinema, with fancy glossy booklets and an introduction from the editor, I think its best suited to this medium (plus they’ve even included the glossy booklet with the Blu-Ray!). A Blu-Ray player lets you digest the stories at your own pace – whether that it’s one three hour chunk, or a few chapters at a time. It also, significantly, allows you to revisit earlier chapters to tease out the links or, if you like, choose your own order.
Rewatching the film, I decided to evaluate it from this perspective. Looking at each chapter as a discrete short film, tied to the stories around it but fundamentally its own thing.
Ash Wednesday: Not really a chapter so much as a prologue; a reading (adapted from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”) read over sand animation. The reflective, literary tone (and Colin Friel’s gravelly, half-whispered narration) is an effective mood-setter for the chapters that follow, but it’s undeniably slight in comparison with the stories it presages.
Big World: An inauspicious beginning, an achingly unimaginative interpretation of a story that had so much potential for a cinematic depiction. A tale of the wide-open horizons of adolescence collapsing into narrow small-town alleyways finds some beauty in its shots of Western Australian highways stretching to eternity. But drudgingly reading out excerpts from Winton’s story over those shots is the least interesting way to tell this story.
Abbrievation: Director Jub Clerc understands that this story of teenage love – perhaps lust/infatuation is the better word – is best told with symbols. The simplicity of this chapter, the way it combines colourful necklaces and fishing hooks and jagged pieces of shells with the oneiric eroticism of two people simply staring at one another tells its story without the need for words. The message is simple – love is inextricably intertwined with pain and loss – and told without unnecessary accoutrements.
Aquifer: The appeal of Winton’s original short story is found in the specifics of how the bushland behind a residential area defines the community, but the larger narrative thread – a man’s dark history literally submerged beneath the murky water of that bushland – is a played-out metaphor for troubling secrets, and not particularly engaging. Understandably, it’s the focus of this segment, to its detriment.
The strongest moments are when Aquifer captures the shape of the spectre of time. For example, the rusted out shell of a Volkswagon Beetle, still preserved decades later. I’m not sure if there’s a way to capture what works about Winton’s story here consistently – the most obvious option is a Big World-esque voiceover, something I wouldn’t recommend, but I wish the bushland was a larger part of this chapter. Part of the problem is that the bushland needs to demonstrate change between the flashback and modern day; it needs to feel less forbidding to an adult than a child. But the cinematography never really achieves that (lower shots in the flashbacks might have helped?), and the shooting of the flashback scenes suggests that the child actors weren’t up to scratch.
Damaged Goods: Initially, Damaged Goods seems like it’ll take Big World’s “narration over related images” approach, but it soon fleshes things out by incorporating dialogue into the flashback scenes, framed as Gail’s contemplation of her husband Vic’s childhood. There’s some stylistic innovation – split screens – and it’s the first chapter to make explicit the disconnect of drastically different actors being used for the same characters, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it photograph of the girl from Abbrievation.
A solid chapter, slightly limited by the fact that the nature of the story (a wife reflecting on her husband’s past loves) is all about making subtext text. It’s at its strongest in the flashbacks, where the split screens work surprisingly well, capturing the disconnected nature and disparate perspectives of memory. I think this would’ve been stronger without the framing conceit, but I understand the desire to be faithful to Winton’s text.
It’s worth noting that the fragmented split screen approach works remarkably well as a synecdoche for The Turning as a complete work; how the different directors and actors contribute to the sense of different perspectives etc. Damaged Goods would’ve been a very appropriate introduction to the film as a whole (certainly in place of Big World, which I just keep ragging on), since this really a story of reminiscence and a search for meaning in the past.
Small Mercies: Well-acted, well-shot but falls kind of flat. The emotional arc here – recovering addict, abortion, fall from grace – doesn’t feel like anything new. While the sense of quietude conveyed by director Rhys Graham, somewhere between autumn and winter, suits the story, it’s not enough to elevate the story to something interesting.
On Her Knees: One of the strongest stories; a fable about the temptation to meet iniquity in kind grounded in morality and nobility. A child (Vic again) realising that doing the right thing doesn’t always feel right. It’s simple and touching and has a clear character arc in little time, aided by some effective acting from Susie Porter, playing Vic’s mum Carol.
Cockleshell: The standout here is the setting – the beach, the two houses alone, together. An adolescent budding romance is complicated by sharp rocks in the water, a metaphor for the harbinger of domestic abuse, lurking under seemingly clear water. Like On Her Knees, there’s a potent character arc achieved in little time, aided here by the synchronicity of the setting and the narrative.
The Turning: This chapter is undeniably the big showcase. The narrative is conventional enough for anyone to digest with an effective twist of evangelism, and of course it’s paired with Byrne’s AACTA-winning performance. It’s – “ripped Jesus” aside – the least stylized of the chapters and it’s a good choice, especially given the length of the chapter gives it room to breathe. Byrne is pretty great – the range she shows from here to Bad Neighbours demonstrates that she deserves to follow “our Cate” to the Hollywood A-list.
Sand: A small story – of lingering resentment between young siblings erupting into dangerous hostility – masterfully executed. Still my favourite segment, because it brilliantly succeeds by using the strengths of cinema and dance in concert rather than trying – and failing – to make the techniques of literature work in an entirely different medium. The muted colour palette is a nice touch – it’s a sunny beach, but instead of vibrant blues and white-gold sand, it’s faded and dull, as though seen through sunglasses. The way the short story is interpreted using indigenous iconography is a welcome refutation to an industry that so often does its best to remove unique cultures from art (casting white actors in non-white roles, etcetera).
Family: A natural companion to Sand, I liked this a lot less the second time through. The acting here doesn’t really work for me, and the style – lots of slow motion, histrionic score, striving for a sense of myth and profundity – seems at odds to what is a straightforward, naturalistic tale in Winton’s book (at least until the genuinely shocking conclusion). Family feels somehow incomplete.
Long, Clear View: Somewhere between Amelie and a rougher Wes Anderson film, on the surface this isn’t too different from Big World – narrator details what’s happening on screen – but director Mia Wasikowska’s appropriate of cinematic tropes and the way its style is suited to a prepubescent perspective (underlined by the frequent close-ups on Vic’s eyes) elevates it to something unique and charming. A fun little short film, and of all the chapters, probably the one most likely to succeed outside the context of this compilation.
Reunion: A straightforward sort of story: Christmas time, family resentment, drinking (and the suggestion of alcoholism). Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett – playing Vic and Gail – can do a lot with a little, of course, and Simon Stone uses unbroken takes not to be showy, but to reinforce this sense that we’re just another, quiet family member hanging out in the corner (well, at least until it gently rises into the sky, but the camera never draws attention to itself despite the entire chapter being told with only three cuts). It’s warm and welcoming, slight but enjoyable.
Commission: Another fairly straightforward, bush and blokes talking piece. It’s well acted (Hugo Weaving, duh), and I think gives the most insight into Vic and his father of all the stories, especially as it directly precedes Fog. It’s competent without leaving much of an impact.
Fog: This short story trends towards cliché – police corruption and alcoholism – but it’s thankfully expressed through the robust metaphor of the dense bushland filled with the equally dense titular fog. It’s not hard to see Bob struggling through the bush with an innocent reporter beside him as a representation of his own struggles with his family and the police force, but straightforward symbolism is appropriate in such short stories. Jonathan auf der Heide shoots the bush with an understanding of its complexity; green and lush from above, skeletal, labyrinthine and forbidding beneath the canopy, as darkness encroaches. It’s no accident that the final shot is that of dark clouds giving way to the dawn.
Boner McPharlin’s Moll: see also: Big Story.
Okay, that’s unfair. Multiple characters sharing myths and stories and half-remembrances of Boner is a more interesting take, giving a sense of the character of a town; like Damaged Goods the different perspectives are thematically significant to the way the movie is presented. But it’s all so contrived (look! A little kid is telling the story while riding around in a bicycle! This guy is telling the story from a dark car by the side of the road with a mute observer!); talking heads might be clichéd, but this just feels like a failed attempt to avoid the problems of that presentation.
Immunity: Immunity is the odd chapter out, told entirely through modern dance. I’m not particularly familiar with dance as an artistic medium, but I’m certainly open to it! Sand (which was shot by dance choreographer Stephen Page) had a powerful emotional impact on me. But while I respect the choice to execute a storyline in such a different way … I can’t call it a success. All the movement and heartfelt stares fail to evoke any emotion in me. I am unmoved, I am immune.
Defender: I feel like I missed the point of this story in the book, and I’m left equally confused here. It’s obviously meaningful, it’s obviously supposed to tie together disparate ideas: Vic’s conflicted feelings towards his family, his scarring redolent of his obsession with “damaged goods,” his skeet shooting tied to his childhood obsession with the rifle. But I find myself unable to get a firm grasp on what the meaning actually is. More disappointingly, I never really get the sense that the director does either. At least Winton’s prose gave me the sense that there was something more there; this just a short film of people talking then a dude shoots a gun. Ambiguity is fine, but it’s a kind of jarring way to end things.
I don’t know that I appreciated the film as much on a second viewing; while I still love the overall tone of the piece, and the uniqueness of its approach, the flaws are more obvious when each chapter is considered individually. Regardless, The Turning stands as a showcase for Australian and artistic ambition; I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out on Blu-Ray or DVD and digest it at your own pace.