It’s long been a ploy of screenwriters to concoct a story in which an ordinary man – and obvious outsider - is deposited into a place insulated against the world at large. The locals, we usually discover, are very protective of their own kind, but even more protective of their secrets. In Ken Hannam’s undervalued mystery Summerfield, replacement schoolteacher Simon Robinson (Nick Tate) isn’t exactly welcomed into the rural township of Banning’s Beach with open arms. The locals are a lukewarm, lackadaisical lot, especially the indentured old crones haunting the rooming house where Simon will now be renting a space previously occupied by his predecessor Peter Flynn. Nobody seems overly disturbed by the recent disappearance of Flynn, as if people in this neck of the woods regularly take flight without telling a soul.
Simon is soon given an odd and disturbing introduction to the town’s schoolkids, with two boys engaged in a mock hanging as he first enters the grounds. Only quiet blonde Sally (Michelle Jarman) shows any real spark of interest in clueing him in on how things operate here. He, in turn, will become curious about Sally before long, especially after accidentally knocking her down in his car whilst heading off for a drive on his first weekend in town. Sally lives on an adjacent island at an estate known as Summerfield – a location idyllically framed but suggestive of sinister secrets buried in its past. She resides there with her mother, the prim and proper Jenny (Elizabeth Alexander), and Uncle David (John Waters), a shady character whose short fuse is implied with the merest smouldering glance. With Sally’s studies threatened by her broken leg, Simon offers to make twice weekly trips to the estate to ensure the girl keeps abreast of her schoolwork.
At heart a mystery swimming in and out of focus beneath the lens of a stranger’s gaze, Summerfield – shot at Victoria’s Philip Island - manages to succinctly connect its narrative dots in an examination of the small town’s psyche and idiosyncratic illogic. Screenwriter Cliff Green creates a colourful canvas, assembling the various pieces of his puzzle with precision. From bird-watching local medic, Dr. Miller (Bud Tingwell), to amorous, neglected rooming house owner Betty Tate (Geraldine Turner), and her glum husband Jim (Max Cullen), Green has added spice in many potential avenues of detection for the curious Simon to follow as he tries to comprehend the apathy associated with his predecessor’s sudden absence and the links he may have had to Jenny and Summerfield.
The ever reliable Tate manages, in a thoughtful, empathetic manner, to express the vague inquisitiveness and concerns of an ordinary man looking for explanations in potentially dangerous hiding places. His attraction and affection for Jenny are untrustworthy initiators but it’s his good conscience that won’t let him rest even as the possessive David subtly thwarts his tentative advances in that direction. Right from the get-go we sense there’s something ‘not quite right’ about Banning’s Beach; it’s a sense of foreboding that informs scenes normally dismissed for their mundaneness.
The underlying mystery related to Summerfield is vividly articulated in musical terms by Bruce Smeaton’s sparse, unnerving, and at times, discordant score. The composer makes the most of his moments, contributing significantly to the conveyance of subtext; weird tonalities are occasionally used to accentuate the probability of danger lurking close at hand.
Hannam, who just a couple of years earlier was responsible for the brilliant Sunday Too Far Away (1975), does a fine job of manipulating mood as suspense builds and expectations of what skeletons may fall from Summerfield’s closets are raised. All the performances, under his guidance, are strong, though Alexander as the repressed Jenny seems awkwardly juxtaposed against the more naturalistic Tate and Waters.
The final scenes are certainly memorable ones, arranged as they are around a taboo-shattering twist. Nobody will be left untouched by the truth, finally. The filmmakers’ commitment to seeing this strange journey through to its sombre, haunting conclusion provides another welcome reminder of the way difficult subject matter was handled in cinema’s golden era of the 1970’s.
Review by David O’Connell