Introducing the Queensland premiere of his latest film – from a career that stretches over more than 20 features – Paul Cox began by thanking his anonymous donor. Force of Destiny, you see, is inspired by Cox’s own experience with liver cancer and a last-minute, live-saving liver transplant, which might be why David Stratton described it as “one of Paul Cox’s most personal and emotional films.” (A quote dutifully reproduced in every bit of the film’s publicity material.)
Undeniably, Force of Destiny (which recently opened the Melbourne International Film Festival) is an intensely personal film. Its protagonist, Robert, played by David Wenham, is a thinly-veiled avatar for the experienced auteur. Robert is an artist, too – a successful sculptor living on an isolated rural oasis – and his own proclivities – a serenely calm disposition, a distrust of technology – seem modelled on Cox himself. So too Robert’s romance with Maya (Shahana Goswami) and her home country of India, a nation Cox has regularly incorporated into his films.
If Force of Destiny had been content to tell a humble story of waiting for death while hoping for life, as its synopsis suggests, it might have made for an excellent, if small-scale, movie. But the self-importance of its title hints at Cox’s attempts to grasp at some greater grandeur in retelling his experience, and its inability to hold on to these ideas is the film’s chief failing.
The philosophical approach appears to be driven by an in-film Van Gogh quote, delivered by Robert at an art lecture (or perhaps paraphrase, since the precise wording isn’t included in the Van Gogh Museum’s database) about life as an “impossible dream.” Cox intersperses his film with expressionistic interludes that strive for a surrealist, Lynchian resonance but instead mostly come across as film-student-experimentation, betraying a lack of coverage. He overlays his film with Wenham’s self-obsessed narration – drawn from Cox’s own Tales from the Cancer Ward – that adds little to each scene. The voiceover is frequently confused rather than contemplative: “Where does all my blood come from?” or “What is family?” Terrence Malick, this ain’t.
I’ll proffer a counterpoint quote to Van Gogh; in Built for Spill’s “Made Up Dreams”, vocalist Doug Martsch sings “Nobody cares what you dreamt about/unless you dreamt about them.” I tend to agree with that assertion. While Cox’s chemotherapy-induced reflections might have brushed against profundity in his own mind, when dryly intoned by Wenham they come across as mundane, almost silly.
Wenham’s lead performance is solid, if somewhat hamstrung by the aforementioned stilted narration. He’s outshone by his co-star, Goswami, though, who delivers a vibrant, memorable performance that exceeds the dialogue she’s given. The remainder of the supporting cast are less impressive, however, ranging from tolerable (Kim Gyngell as Dr James) to terrible (the actresses playing Robert’s wife and daughter, who are, admittedly, given the screenplay’s worst lines).
I suspect the primary limitation of Force of Destiny is budgetary rather than artistic (Cox directed more than a few jabs at the reticence of Australian funding bodies in his introduction and Q&A alike.) Cinematographer Ian Jones produces some gorgeous, drifting camerawork – particularly in the opening shot, which glides through the bush surrounding Robert’s home – but just as often the overall aesthetic sits somewhere around an episode of Country Practice. I couldn’t help but notice the clumsiness of the zooms, as though an amateur photographer was roughly thumbing the zoom toggle on a cheap digital camera to get their actors in frame. More egregious was “Robert’s Nightmare”, a sort of sub-Jacob’s Ladder dream sequence where our hero imagines himself crudely cut apart by masked surgeons. It’s clearly a bunch of extras in costumes cut together from garbage bags and two-dollar Lincraft masks, which irreparably ruins the intended effect of the sequence.
Let’s return to that Built for Spill quote, though: “Nobody cares what you dreamt about/unless you dreamt about them/don’t let that stop you/tell them anyway.” For all its flaws, Force of Destiny clearly means a great deal to its writer/director, who explained that “It was very important for me to make this film, because there are no films about transplantation.” Its Queensland Premiere was part of the Brisbane Festival and the lead-up to November’s Asia Pacific Film Festival, but it was also attended by representatives from the Queensland Cancer Council. The film itself was bracketed by an organ donor PSA and a pro-organ-donation title card; while Force of Destiny may be artistically unsatisfactory, it’s hard to quibble with the righteousness of its intent or its potential to good. Nonetheless, I’d recommend you skip the film and sign up as an organ donor instead.